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Turning over a new leaf: from tobacco to COVID-19 vaccines

Contributing to millions of deaths per year globally, tobacco has a poor reputation, and rightfully so. The plant, however, also has a healing side. Cape Bio Pharms, a spin-off company of the Biopharming Research Unit (BRU) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is using a distant cousin of tobacco as a bioreactor to produce antibodies and antigens. These are crucial to develop new biomedical solutions to cure, prevent and detect a variety of diseases, including the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Launched in 2018 with funding from the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme, Cape Bio Pharms is on a mission to commercialise the biotech innovations developed by the BRU at UCT. That includes the laboratory’s work on using the Nicotiana benthamiana plant to produce antibodies. These are used by life scientists to develop new cures, vaccines and diagnostics.

For the past two years, the company has grown these leafy plants in its state-of-the-art hydroponic grow room in the suburb of Ndabeni, Cape Town, with the purpose of infiltrating them with bacterial cultures at six weeks old. The plants then start producing the required biologics, or medically-relevant proteins, which are extracted three to seven days later. “Scientists will use these to study particular bacteria or viruses, with the intention of developing solutions to detect, combat and prevent them,” says Cape Bio Pharms co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Tamlyn Shaw.

The reason Cape Bio Pharms is tapping into Nicotiana benthamiana plants, which the BRU lab has been using for over twenty years for a multitude of purposes, is because of its strength, ability to grow quickly, and weakened immune system. “It is the model plant for this type of work as it doesn’t fight against the infection as much as other plants,” Shaw says, explaining it is a desert plant native to Australia. “To survive, it had to throw away a lot of its immunity. We are taking advantage of that.”

What makes plant-made antibodies interesting is that the process from seed to the extraction takes weeks, which is significantly faster than manufacturing conventional mammalian reagents. “That can take months to half a year,” says Professor Ed Rybicki, virologist and director of the BRU, noting that each batch of plant-based reagents is derived from the same genetic construct – which doesn’t apply to animal-made antibodies. “Consistency helps life scientists produce dependable bio-medical test results, which fast-tracks the development of new medicines, vaccines and diagnostics, helps curb pandemics faster and saves lives. As we are seeing now with COVID-19, time is essential when fighting outbreaks.”

Another key time-related advantage is the scalability of plant-based systems. “When scientists need more antibodies, we simply grow more plants. Scaling takes weeks, not months like with the traditional  systems,” Shaw says.

She adds that producing safe, reliable, and reproducible biologics in South Africa and making them available to local life scientists, allows them to strengthen their position in the global biotech innovation scene. “At the moment our scientists rely on the imports of these products, which costs a lot of time and money. The easier it is for them to secure a sustainable supply of stable and reproducible proteins, the more medical innovations we’ll be seeing coming from our shores.”




Distributed by Be-cause Integrated Communications:

Chelsey Wilken

074 470 5996 / 021 447 1082


On behalf of:

Cape Bio Pharms: Tamlyn Shaw, CSO


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