The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need to optimize drug discovery and development processes. While the public-private initiative ‘Operation Warp Speed’ won plaudits for its ability to accelerate vaccine development and distribution, it also put a spotlight on common bottlenecks for future clinical development. Companies invest in innovative solutions to overcome challenges in complex manufacturing processes and fast-track their drug development. In recent years, the use of transgenic plants as bioreactors emerged as an exciting field of R&D. With rapid advancements, experts see new opportunities for plant-based bioreactors to show more promise than traditional methods. Similar to closed system mammalian cell bioreactors, plant grow rooms can be set up in clean rooms to avoid biosafety concerns associated with the unintentional distribution of pollen and water droplets that transport bacteria. These cultured plants require only simple nutrients to grow with operational costs far less than traditional bioreactors. However, using plants as bioreactors present their own unique challenges for drug discovery, such as technical barriers to consistent control of light intensity, nutrition, temperature, etc., necessary for the type of control needed to establish a consistent production platform for drug development. At the forefront of redefining the status quo of the pharmaceutical industry is Zea Biosciences Corp (Zea).
The company aims to decentralize global drug discovery and production using its proprietary plant biotechnology platform – The Lighthouse. The platform enables researchers to identify, produce and optimize the growth of minimum-variation plants for high-potency drugs in pharmaceuticals. To date, Zea has grown 263 plant species, several with the potential to treat diseases worldwide.
“Not only is it a paradigm shift designed to replace the traditional factory-based chemical reactors with plant-based technology, but it is also the key to unlocking over 40 years of research in plants,” says Jane Lalonde CMO at Zea Biosciences.
Using Plant-based Systems to Validate and Grow Drugs holds great promise when performed in a highly controlled platform. The pharma industry is seeking strategies that enable low production costs, consistency and safety, and easy scale-up.
“Our Lighthouse platform allows us to deliver the same specifications of that drug molecule as if it were grown in a traditional mammalian-based cell bioreactor at costs and durations that are ten-fold less,” explains CEO of Zea Biosciences, Jim Wilson.
Zea’s proprietary Lighthouse platform effectively enables researchers to use plants as bioreactors and produce commercial quantities of recombinant proteins using patented biotechnology-oriented techniques for pharmaceutical ingredients used to treat a variety of ailments. “As a result, we can significantly speed up a company’s R&D lifecycle and enable them to decrease the expenses of clinical trials for drug development processes,” adds Wilson. Zea’s platform consists of a state-of-the-art cleanroom equipped with patented technology engineered to maximize biomass production with precision, scale, and minimal variation among plants. It runs on an intelligent operating system where all the elements are optimized and controlled to generate a massive set of data points for research validation and IP. This allows researchers to unlock the potential of their targeted expression molecules by stabilizing plant growth and delivering precision with minimal variation in trial replication batches. As a result, clients in big pharma can grow plants for pharmaceutical ingredients cost-effectively and sustainably while accelerating processes from the R&D bench to full-scale production and commercialization.
To further illustrate the efficacy of Zea’s platform, Wilson cites a use case example. The collaborator’s research focused on a novel therapy for colorectal cancer using
a plant-based expression system. Although the client could identify and isolate the active biologic compound, they could not culture and replicate a scalable amount
of active ingredient in each plant consistently. With Zea’s platform, the client can develop a controlled environment ensuring optimal conditions for plant growth and consistently reproduced the target molecules run to run. As a result, Zea can enable its partner to fast- track research and increase the richness of their data to leverage for future work.
A Vision to Transform the World of Healthcare. The black swan events of the coronavirus pandemic forced the pharmaceutical industry to reassess
its business approach and re-evaluate the global supply chain. It has encouraged companies to adopt innovative methods to progress drug advancements and collaboration, including improved analytical tools, exploring new access points for patients, generating public awareness of the benefits of participation, and more. However, many countries still lack the core infrastructure required to develop, manufacture and distribute affordable pharmaceutical drugs. That said, plants can rapidly produce recombinant proteins, vaccines, and other molecules on a large scale at a relatively low cost. This is particularly valuable in underdeveloped countries where access to medicines and vaccines is limited.
Wilson is passionate about laying the foundation for a flexible, on-demand drug supply chain that can help heal, treat, and cure diseases with plants. He is set to steer his company to take a path not yet traversed, and even fewer envisioned--a world where communities grow their own medicine. Under his leadership, Zea is on a mission to push the boundaries of drug development and unlock the potential of plant biologics by providing access to affordable medicines and inspiring healthier communities. Backed by a prominent and highly experienced science advisory board and management team, Zea has rapidly accelerated its technology platform to transform the treatment of diseases both from a manufacturing point of view and a world view. Its dedicated team is set to make transformative efforts through the willingness to share ideas, tackle challenges, and develop tools and models with a forward-looking approach. Strong communication skills and transparency are core tenants of its business processes as Zea engages collaborators and clients worldwide. The company emphasizes its philosophy of collaboration, innovation, and ownership
Headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, Zea was established in 2016. Initially, the company started in the food industry, where it focused on accelerating growth and reducing the cost of edible plant production. In the process, experts at Zea discovered that its patented precision plant technology enables them to grow consistent, highly reproducible plants cost-effectively for the biotech industry. The crisis of COVID-19 presented Zea with a unique opportunity to shift the precision growing platform into the therapeutics market. Currently, the company is moving aggressively to unlock the potential of 40 years of pent-up plant research. Around the country and indeed around the globe, researchers at Universities, Institutes, and major governmental agencies spent the last 40 years developing a wide range of therapeutic modalities using plants. Zea intends to enable all of that potential to finally be realized by collaborating with all of those world-class research institutions and enabling their research to be scaled on Zea’s Lighthouse platform. For the future, the company plans to build new facilities and continue to onboard more research collaborators to impact human health with programs focused on Covid, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and more with its ever-expanding pipeline of solutions.
“We want to transform, innovate and be the primary channel of distribution through our platform to help the world population access affordable medicines,” --Jim Wilson, CEO Zea
See the article at LifeSciences Magazinel.