Having been CEO of Leaf Expression Systems for 3 months, the following thoughts have struck me about the company and our Hypertrans® transient plant expression technology, and about our industry.
Firstly, Leaf Expression Systems Ltd has been operational for about two years, but not enough people know about us. We must and will change that – quickly!
Leaf is based on the Norwich Research Park, but very few people that I have spoken to in the UK seem to know anything about NRP, even though the John Innes Centre, Plant Biosciences Ltd, and the Earlham and Quadram Institutes are all on the campus, with Norwich Hospital right next door. I would be willing to bet that even fewer people working in the (non-agricultural) life sciences industry outside the UK know anything about NRP, despite the fact that if Nobel Prizes were awarded for plant research, JIC would rival LMB in Cambridge for the number of winners!!
I have also learned that using plants like Nicotiana benthamiana to produce monoclonal antibodies, enzymes, virus like particles (VLPs) for vaccines, and complex natural products in their leaves is incredibly simple and quick. Having spent over 30 years in the business of making and producing MAbs in mammalian or bacterial expression systems, I was expecting the process of infiltrating plant leaves to be equally complicated and time consuming. During my first week at Leaf, watching our scientists “dunk” the plants in a suspension of Agrobacterium which contained the protein sequence of interest, expose the plants to a vacuum for about 10 minutes and then watch as the leaves regain some of their rigidity when the vacuum is released and the suspension is sucked back into the leaves, – and “job done”, – was nothing short of a revelation. The fact that the leaves from our living “bioreactors” are harvested 7 – 10 days later, and that within just 12 weeks of receiving the sequence of interest to having gram quantities of purified product available for our clients, was equally astonishing.
Our industry is under increasing pressure to deliver new, better and cheaper diagnostics, vaccines and therapies so that Third World – and not just First World patients, can have improved health and quality of life. The flip side to those demands is that we work in a highly regulated and therefore very conservative and risk averse industry where the knee-jerk reaction to change is almost always the perception that the regulators will be resistant, and that change will increase risk and cost of gaining market approval for their products. In my experience, the regulators are far more receptive to change than the perception, and the earlier you engage with them the more helpful they are able to be. In addition, innovative thinking consistently delivers higher quality and efficiencies that far outweigh the costs of implementing the changes in the first place, and I believe that plant-based expression systems will have an increasingly significant role to play in the changing dynamics of our industry.
We at Leaf gladly accept the challenge of convincing the industry to take another look at the innovation we bring with Hypertrans® and we look forward to helping our clients accelerate their product R&D programmes, reduce their drug development costs, and meet the challenges we all face in delivering better patient outcomes for the future.