(c) Luiza Puiu

In an international research project, researchers from the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib), the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna and the American biotech company Tonix Pharmaceuticals want to establish a new process for the production of antibodies in plants that is faster, cheaper and more sustainable than current production methods.

Vienna - Due to population growth and modern lifestyles, there is a general increase in viral infections and their unprecedented spread. Medicine is faced with the task of providing vaccines and medicines - especially antibodies - ever faster. "A major challenge," says Herta Steinkellner, professor at the Institute of Plant Biotechnology and Cell Biology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna and key researcher at the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib). "The currently predominant production method for antibodies worldwide requires living cells, usually mammalian or human cells," explains Steinkellner. These products are manufactured in industrial fermenters that operate under sterile conditions. This makes the production of antibodies costly and time-consuming, which makes the products very expensive."

Pharmaceuticals produced in plants

Under the leadership of Herta Steinkellner, a team from BOKU Vienna and acib has developed a special biotechnological process that can be used to produce protein-based pharmaceutical products in plants. "If we look at the molecular processes in a human, mammalian or plant cell, we see that many of these processes are similar. This has to do with the fact that all organisms have developed from a primordial cell.

"We use this phenomenon for our process approach," says Steinkellner. By specifically controlling and modifying these cellular processes, the researchers can now produce complex products in plants that are normally only produced in animal and human cells. The process, which Steinkellner and her team have been working on for decades, offers a number of advantages: It is both cheaper and faster and has the potential to make the manufacturing process of many drugs more environmentally friendly.

Sophisticated antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 viruses

At the same time, Steinkellner has contributed her expertise in another area of research to the new manufacturing process: the production of antibodies. By combining plant biotechnology and antibody engineering, the researchers can produce increasingly sophisticated antibody-based products. She and her team have proven this during the coronavirus pandemic - and have been celebrated internationally for it, and not just in the research community: "We have succeeded in producing highly active variants of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in plants using numerous engineering methods," says Steinkellner. US based biopharmaceutical company Tonix, which is developing coronavirus antibodies in its laboratories, proposed an interesting collaboration with us, namely to produce their newly developed antibodies in modified form using our new production system," says Steinkellner, explaining the background to the new acib project.

Improved production process for more efficient products

The research project is based on two pillars: firstly, the optimization of the production process and secondly, the modification of the products themselves, i.e. the target antibodies. "We use molecular bioengineering to introduce new functionalities into foreign species. To do this, we manipulate both the production host - the plants - and the end product - the antibodies. Both together give the end product modified, optimized properties," says Steinkellner. Which plants are used? "As we need a large amount of biomass, we use a tobacco plant called Nicotiana benthamia." The researchers infiltrate the plant leaves with a suspension containing the antibody gene vehicles. The plant's cellular machinery then switches to antibody production. The leaves are harvested almost like tobacco - after only about a week. "The difference is that we purify our products in several steps," explains Steinkellner and continues: "The highly purified antibodies are then subjected to biochemical analyzes at BOKU and functional analyzes at project partner Tonix, among others."

Fastest and most sustainable process for the production of drugs against viral diseases

By producing antibodies in plants - as in this case against coronaviruses - the production time can be reduced to a few weeks, in contrast to conventional processes that take several months. "No other system has yet been able to achieve such speed and it is also unrivaled in terms of sustainability," says Steinkellner, explaining the importance of the plant-based method: "Plants only need water, a few minerals and light to grow."

When asked whether the system is generally applicable, Steinkellner replies: "Antibody-based products are a success story in the biopharmaceutical industry. This is mainly due to their wide range of applications, which include vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic procedures". It is not yet clear whether this project will result in a market-ready product. However, according to the researchers, the chances are good. Steinkellner: "However, it normally takes several years to complete the lengthy - but necessary - clinical trials."

Photos may be used free of charge provided the credit "Luiza Puiu" under the following link: https://myshare.acib.at/s/HYPdNfzeBSfnY8D

About acib

Founded in 2010, the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology (acib) develops new, more environmentally friendly and economical processes for the biotech, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, using nature's methods as a model. The acib, a non-profit organization, is an international research center for industrial biotechnology with worldwide locations and headquarters in Graz. acib sees itself as a partnership of 150+ universities and companies. Owners of acib are the Universities of Innsbruck and Graz, the Graz University of Technology, the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna and Joanneum Research. The K2 center is funded within the COMET program by the BMK, BMAW as well as the federal states of Styria, Vienna, Lower Austria and Tyrol. The COMET program is managed by the FFG. www.acib.at

About BOKU

With 2,200 scientists and more than 10,000 students, the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna is one of the leading life sciences universities in Europe. Thanks to the combination of natural sciences, technology and social and economic sciences, research and teaching are characterized by a holistic approach to problems. Sustainability, climate impact, scarcity of resources, environmental protection, food and health security: the challenges and problems of our time are interconnected in many ways and can only be solved in an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary manner. BOKU maintains 18 agreements worldwide in the form of network memberships and around 360 multi- and bilateral partnerships with universities and research institutions and is part of the European University EPICUR. www.boku.ac.at.

About Tonix

Tonix is a US based biopharmaceutical company focused on commercializing, developing, discovering and licensing therapeutics to treat and prevent human disease and alleviate suffering. Tonix’s development portfolio is focused on central nervous system disorders. Tonix’s priority is to submit a New Drug Application (NDA) to the FDA for Tonmya, which has completed two positive Phase 3 studies for the management of fibromyalgia. Tonix’s pipeline is also comprised of immunology, rare disease, and infectious disease product candidates. Tonix’s immunology portfolio includes biologics to address organ transplant rejection, autoimmunity, and cancer. Tonix’s rare disease portfolio includes therapeutics to treat rare genetic conditions, and its infectious disease portfolio includes a live virus vaccine platform. https://www.tonixpharma.com

Scientific contact

Ao.Univ.Prof. Mag.rer.nat. Dr.nat.techn. Herta Steinkellner
acib Key-Researcher, Scientist at Institute of Plant Biotechnology and Cell Biology (BOKU Vienna)
T.: +43 1 47654-94370
Mail: herta.steinkellner(at)boku.ac.at

Company contact

Ben Shannon
ICR Westwicke

Media contact

Martin Walpot, MA
Head of Public Relations and Marketing (acib GmbH)
T: +43 316 873 9312
Mail: martin.walpot(at)acib.at

Bettina Fernsebner-Kokert, BA
University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna
Deputy Head of Public Relations
T.: +43 1 47654-10424
Mail: bettina.fernsebner(at)boku.ac.at