In what could be the beginning of plant-based pharmaceuticals, Canada’s SemBioSys Genetics Inc. has genetically modified safflower plants to produce pharmaceutical-grade insulin that is biologically equivalent human insulin.
Today, most insulin is produced by genetically modified bacteria, but the company believes engineering safflower plants to “grow” the drug via injected enzymes could cut the price of insulin dramatically. Since the market for insulin could more than double from $7.1 billion in 2008 to $15 billion in 2012 as Western countries see more people with diabetes and underserved countries seek medicine, the ability to cheaply produce insulin-using plants could be both beneficial for diabetics and profitable for SymBioSys.
Safflower’s production of insulin is just one of many examples of using plants to produce pharmaceuticals. Other successful results have been reported for plant-based drug treatments for infant diarrhea and cervical cancer.