When we think of the value of plants, we often visualize sources of food, not pharmaceuticals. However, many of the world’s essential medicines are derived from plants in processes that are too often inefficient, unreliable, and environmentally destructive.
Dr. Elizabeth Sattely and her team are exploring how plants can be re-engineered to serve as miniature chemical production facilities to produce a wide array of biological agents. Their target is Nicotiana benthamiana, an Australian relative of the tobacco plant whose “flexible” chemistry has been harnessed in a number of laboratory applications. At Stanford, a Nicotiana variety is being used to produce the chemotherapy agent Etoposide, a drug used to treat many different kinds of cancers.
“This work not only has the potential to make lifesaving drugs more accessible, but also safer and more reliable.”
– Dr. Elizabeth Sattely, PhD
The current process for producing Etoposide involves using large quantities of the Himalayan Mayapple, an endangered plant that has been overharvested since the drug’s discovery. Dr. Sattely’s process is faster and can also make it easier for researchers to make analogs of the drug that could have reduced side effects and improved effectiveness.