Industrial biotechnology has always followed a central theme: cells, bacterial or mammalian, which have been harnessed to work for us. This can cover a range of activities, from making food and drinks (bread, cheese, etc) to acting as microscopic factories to produce desired biochemicals. At Leaf Expression Systems, this convention is being broken by employing plants as biochemical factories in the place of mammalian cells. The revolutionary concept is thanks to the Hypertrans® technology developed at the John Innes Centre, which made headlines last year for providing a cheap, quick and easy way of producing polio vaccine. The Norwich Research Park-based company is aiming to use this technology as a platform to revolutionise industrial-scale protein production.

Plants provide a unique platform for producing proteins on an industrial scale. The majority of proteins are produced in bacteria as they are easy to genetically engineer, have extremely rapid growth and produce a high yield. However, certain proteins require modification by the host cell after production to function correctly, which is not possible in bacteria. For this subset of proteins mammalian cell lines are commonly used, but genetic modification, growing and harvesting the end-product is far more challenging than in bacterial counterparts. This is where plants step in. By combining the capability to modify proteins with simpler genetic modification and quicker growth than mammalian cell cultures, Leaf Expression Systems are on to something which could shake up the biotech industry.

The Hypertrans® technology utilises a close relative of the tobacco plant as it is easy to genetically engineer.

The Hypertrans® technology employed by Leaf Expression Systems can be used to create vaccines, enzymes and antibodies which are essential to sectors such as Industrial Biotech and Med-Tech. Production of vaccines is crucial in response to disease outbreaks but also in general maintenance of population health. Since 2016, George Lomonosoff (creator of the Hypertrans® technology) has been working with groups at Oxford and Leeds Universities to create a virus-free vaccine for polio. The £1.5 million project, funded by the WHO, is aiming to replace the current version of the vaccine which requires undesirable growth of live polio virus. In addition to polio vaccine, the Hypertrans® technology has been licensed to Canadian vaccine production company Medicago, who have vaccines for influenza, rotavirus and norovirus in development. Considering the success this Canadian company is having with the Hypertrans® technology, Leaf Expression Systems are in an excellent position to follow them into the multi-billion-dollar vaccine market. Another application of the novel technology which is gaining traction is in therapeutic antibody production. In particular, Leaf Expression Systems have been developing antibodies to treat HIV and various cancers. Not only is production of these antibodies using plants far quicker and easier than existing methods, patents on the established antibodies about to run out, freeing them for use with Hypertrans® technology.

Leaf Expression System have the potential to disrupt three multi-billion-dollar markets. Chart shows 2015/2016 global market values for vaccine, antibody and enzyme development according to Technavio, Marketsandmarkets and Grand View Research respectively.

By developing a system that can produce these materials faster and cheaper than the current technologies, Leaf Expression Systems has the potential to revolutionise three separate multi-billion-dollar markets. Operating at the state-of-the-art building at the Norwich Research Park will provide the company the platform to meet the growing demand and fulfill this enormous potential.