Down on the “pharm”: do genetically modified plants hold the key to cheaper drugs?

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e3829 (Published 31 May 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3829
  1. Geoff Watts, freelance journalist
  1. 1 London, UK
  1. geoff{at}scileg.freeserve.co.uk

“Pharming”— using GM plants to manufacture biopharmaceuticals—could give us cheaper drugs. But not everyone is convinced, reports Geoff Watts

The notion of using genetically modified plants to manufacture biopharmaceuticals—“pharming”—is intriguing but, as with all emerging technologies, prompts an obvious question, “Why do it?” More specifically, will the process lead to the creation of new or cheaper drugs?

The long established method of producing biopharmaceuticals is microbial fermentation. The advent of methods for large scale culture of animal cells broadened the range of what could be created to include complex molecules such as hormones and monoclonal antibodies. But prices have risen alarmingly. As James Robinson of the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health has pointed out, “Hundreds of new products are poised to emerge from clinical trials and be launched at prices ten to one hundred times higher than those of the conventional drugs they replace.”[1] These new drugs run the risk of pricing themselves off the market and out of the clinic.

Rising prices, actual or anticipated, are creating dilemmas for developed countries and, in a rather different way, for developing countries too. The UK’s National Institute for …

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