The company's grant application was submitted in response to President George W Bush's Executive Order encouraging innovation in manufacturing, issued by the White House in February 2004.
Altor said the long-term goal of the project is to use its plant expression system to produce a variety of immunotherapeutic drugs - including anticancer antibodies - at very low manufacturing costs.
Valentin Negrouk, the senior scientist and principal investigator of the project, said: "The funding will help us to accelerate our efforts to manufacture biomedical products using an economical plant-based system."
Making pharmaceuticals in crop plants is an attractive proposition because they are inexpensive to grow, and could produce vast quantities of drugs or vaccines at low cost, potentially making it possible to make drugs that were not economically feasible before. But moves in this area have been met with dismay by environmentalist groups, alarmed that the GM traits could find their way into the food chain.
Lettuce has advantages over other crop plants in that it is self-pollinating and can be commercially produced in a large quantity under well-defined conditions (i.e. hydroponic growth, green house contained, animal pathogen free), according to Altor.
. Negrouk and his team have published an article in the August issue of Plant Science describing efficient transient expression of fully functional therapeutic antibodies in lettuce.
In the NCI-supported project, Altor will extend these studies and conduct preclinical efficacy testing in tumour models using antibodies already produced at high levels in stable transgenic lettuce.
Altor said in a statement that it intends to exploit these advantages in developing 'a safe, readily scalable process to manufacture well-characterised biological drugs at a fraction of the cost of the current commercial methods'.
The company acquired intellectual property rights to the transgenic plant expression technology from Sunol Molecular Corporation earlier this year. Through this acquisition it also inherited a collaborative agreement with Dow Chemical on therapeutic antibody production in transgenic plants.