The Pursuit of Edible Plant-Based Medicine

We now know that pharmaceutical molecules can be harvested from plants. That much is well-established and irrefutable. Medicine, like everything else on this planet, is made up of chemical building blocks, and plants have proven to be highly adept at producing these building blocks. 

The next challenge for researchers and manufacturers is eliminating the need to harvest pharmaceutical molecules at all. What if we could grow a protein or peptide-based drug in a plant and that was the final product? No downstream processing or purification needed. Genetically engineered plants would provide controlled doses of pharmaceutical compounds in edible form, thus eliminating the need for expensive machinery and labor-intensive infrastructure.

If we could grow medicine inside of a plant that a human being could consume in a smoothie or a salad, it would revolutionize the pharmaceutical industry. An entire multibillion-dollar supply chain would be effectively cut in half. And, more importantly, it would make affordable drugs accessible to even the poorest, most isolated communities on earth. Anywhere with fertile soil or space for a grow room could theoretically produce its own pharmaceuticals.  

This dream is not new. For as long as scientists have been experimenting with plant biologics, they’ve envisioned a world in which diabetics could sprinkle plant-based insulin on their eggs in the morning or people with chronic pain could grow anti-inflammatory snap peas in their backyards. It’s a wonderful dream, and it’s becoming more and more feasible every day. 

There are just a couple of roadblocks that must be overcome before we can bring it fully to life. The first major one being digestion. Peptide drugs are larger and more complex than those composed of smaller molecules and normally have to be injected rather than taken orally. This is because if they’re swallowed, our digestive systems break them down into smaller amino acids before they can reach their intended target. In order for the edible peptide drugs to be effectively absorbed into our systems, we must solve for digestion. The most realistic fix is to bind the peptide to another molecule that would act as a blocker and pull the peptide through the stomach intact, allowing it to reach its target and carry out its intended purpose. Fortunately, there has been substantial progress made in this arena lately and we hope to bring you an update some time in the near future.

Another obstacle separating us from our goal of edible plant-based medicine is government regulation. As we’ve touched on in previous blogs, achieving consistency in plants is no mean feat, and in order for the FDA to green light a pharmaceutical product, it must be consistent and reproducible. We at ZEA have been able to grow plants within a minimal range of variation. However, when the plant itself is the final product, minimum variation becomes even more crucial. We are confident that our platform is capable of meeting these requirements, but it is nevertheless a regulatory concern that we have to overcome. 

There are myriad other factors that we have to consider when bringing pharmaceutical ingredients to market to ensure that they do no harm and that they promote wellness. Digestion and regulation are just two of the main hurdles that we’ve come up against so far. 

The road to commercialization is long, and yet when we weigh the obstacles in front of us against the intriguing possibilities waiting on the other side, our decision becomes obvious. We, as a company and an industry, must pursue plant-based edible pharmaceuticals. Being able to grow a vegetable with the same bioactive ingredient as a synthetic pill wouldn’t just be a game changer, it would be a new game altogether. 

Thanks for reading,

ZEA Biosciences