Green-thumbed biotechs say they can use plants to make drugs faster, cheaper, and better than top pharmaceutical companies

Botanical Biopharming

In 2001, ProdiGene was a poster child for the plant biotechnology industry. A privately owned biotech in College Station, Texas, ProdiGene was the first to successfully commercialize a product made from a transgenic plant—a protein called trypsin produced in corn kernels and sold to the pharmaceutical industry for mammalian cell culturing. They also had more than 18 other plant-made products in development, including vaccines for traveler’s diarrhea, hepatitis B, and AIDS. That spring, the MIT Technology Review voted ProdiGene’s oral vaccine patent one of the “five patents that will transform business and technology.”

But a year later, things began to spiral downhill. In September 2002, the US Department of Agriculture ordered ProdiGene to destroy 155 acres (63 hectares) of corn in Iowa that may have cross-pollinated with a nearby test site of ProdiGene’s transgenic corn. Then in October, the USDA seized 500,000 bushels of soybeans contaminated by ProdiGene’s corn in Nebraska. In the end, ProdiGene was slapped with over $2 million in fines and clean-up fees by the government. “That was the end of ProdiGene,” says Zivko Nikolov, former vice president of bioprocessing at the company.

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