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  • Writer's pictureHirokazu Kobayashi

Plants are the ultimate option for producing low-cost and human-friendly biopharmaceuticals! *

Updated: May 20

Hirokazu Kobayashi

CEO, Green Insight Japan, Inc.

Professor Emeritus and Visiting Professor, University of Shizuoka

The leading cause of death in Japan is cancer, which disproportionately affects the elderly population. Rheumatoid arthritis is also a significant health concern, with 825,000 people suffering from the condition. Biopharmaceuticals, or biologics, have a proven track record of effectively treating these diseases through targeted injections. The global market for these treatments is estimated at 20 trillion yen (equivalent to 130 billion US dollars) annually. During my time as vice president at the University of Shizuoka, I worked alongside Dr. Tasuku Honjo, the chairman of the board of directors at this university and the 2018 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine. He created the cancer treatment drug Obdivo. In 2022, global sales of Obdivo reached 1.5 trillion yen (equivalent to 10 billion US dollars). It's worth noting that biopharmaceutical patents generally expire after 15 years, so many of them have already expired. These drugs are often called "biosimilars" when their structure resembles the original medicines. While I have experience researching plant genes and their expression control mechanisms, consumers do not widely accept creating genetically modified agricultural products, especially in Japan. However, producing biopharmaceuticals from plants could significantly reduce the cost of these drugs, potentially up to 1/40th of the current cost.

Biopharmaceuticals are medications that are manufactured using genetic recombination technology in cultured mammalian cells. Among the top-selling biopharmaceuticals, there is the hTNF-α (human tumor necrosis factor-α) antibody “adalimumab" (marketed as Humira), which is an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease. However, sugar chains added to proteins in non-human production systems can be recognized as foreign antigens in humans. Our company has developed a new "light-switch" method with red LED for producing biopharmaceuticals using plant chloroplasts, eliminating the need for cultured mammalian cells. In other words, they can be said to be human-friendly. Using tobacco, we have been able to produce a sugar chain-free, low-molecular-weight protein that can serve as a follow-on drug to Humira. Our primary goal is to commercialize this technology, which has the potential to revolutionize the biopharmaceutical industry, with a global market worth over 30 trillion yen (equivalent to 200 billion US dollars).

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