Approximately 25 per cent of today's pharmaceuticals are vegetal - in total, they account for a worldwide turnover of €33 billion. Because plants are relatively slow producers, the production of these pharmaceuticals is not so straightforward.
Therefore, in the 1980s, scientists directed all their attention to the use of plant cells as production units. These plant cells can, in fact, produce the same substances as the plants themselves, but they do it much more quickly.
Scientists from the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) together with Ghent University and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland have developed a technology that increases the production of secondary metabolites in a highly targeted way, thus gaining precious time.
By introducing alterations into the DNA of plant cells, they step up the production of certain products and stop the production of others.
The technology also enables them to introduce combinations of genes from other plants into plant cell cultures and thus generates new secondary metabolites.
The cell cultures have their limitations. The production of secondary metabolites, for example - which are important medically - is very limited. It's possible to modify cell cultures in a way that they do produce these substances in larger quantities, but this is a very time-consuming process.
The new company, >Solucel, was formed towards the end of 2005 and the name of the company refers to its most important raw material: the plant cells. 'Solu' is Finnish for 'cell'.
This week, research results are being published that are a confirmation of the technology.
In their article, the researchers reveal the genetic profile of the Madagascar periwinkle, a natural source of a drug that combats cancer.
Their findings lay the basis for a better understanding of the plant's secondary metabolism, thus making it easier to alter this important medicinal plant to obtain an optimal production of secondary metabolites.