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Scientists Create Genetically Modified Plants to Produce Pharmaceutical Drugs

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Mike Barrett
August 13, 2012

Re-creating the world one genetic manipulation at a time. For centuries, humankind has been utilizing the naturally occurring medicinal and healing compounds of plants to overcome illness and disease. But scientists just don’t seem to be happy with what nature has to offer. Up until just a few years ago, scientists had to manually splice natural plant compounds to patent them for pharmaceutical drug companies; now, a way has been discovered to genetically modify plants which are actually programmed to produce pharmaceutical drugs instead of their natural compounds. Of course not everyone is excited for genetically modified plants.

Creating Pharmaceutical Drug-Producing Genetically Modified Plants

The researchers, from MIT and led by Associate Professor Sarah O’Connor, added bacterial genes to a plant known as the periwinkle plant, altering the plants natural alkaloid production system. Scientists would be “enabling it to attach halogens such as chlorine or bromine to a class of compounds called alkaloids that the plant normally produces.” In essence, the genetically modified plants, in stead of producing natural alkaloids, will actually produce variant pharmaceutical drug versions of the alkaloids.

“We’re trying to use plant biosynthetic mechanisms to easily make a whole range of different iterations of natural products. If you tweak the structure of natural products, very often you get different or improved biological and pharmacological activity,” she said. “

It certainly isn’t the first time genes were engineered into plants. Remember Bt corn? That was created the same way, with Bt corn engineered to produce an insecticide called Bt. But the process used by O’Connor is a bit different than what scientists have done in the past. Using a process called ‘metabolic engineering’, scientists like O’Connor alter the actual molecular output of plants, which helps to mold the compounds being produced. Ultimately, this can lead to a large variety of end products.

The idea of genetically modified plants is disturbing alone, but why tamper with nature already producing natural, beneficial compounds? In the periwinkle plant specifically, the scientists targeted an alkaloid called vinblastine, which is effective at treating cnacers such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. So why create genetically modified plants and other organisms? Some scientists may think they are benefiting society, but no one can ignore the genetic and patented creation gifted to Big Pharma, and the stealing from nature.

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This post first appeared at Natural Society

This article was posted: Monday, August 13, 2012 at 1:39 am

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