Clinical solutions for new drugs – inspired by crop research – and a breed of tomato designed to bring health and nutrition to consumers were among the innovations showcased at The Sainsbury Laboratory’s Agri-Tech Week “open-house” event.
Biotechnology was the topic of the day: how can genetics, gene-editing or gene engineering advance the health of consumers and the efficiency of the food system? More than two decades of research, plus a supportive environment for the commercialisation of science, has facilitated the creation of businesses being led by the researchers.
Today’s event showcased such companies alongside discussions around the facilitation of entrepreneurship in research institutions.
Boosting plant immunity
Unlike animals and humans, plants don’t have responsive immune systems that adapts to fight off a new virus or bacterium. Instead, they carry a suite of “resistance” genes and receptors to help them combat challenge by pests and diseases.
NELARIX can provide “made-to-order” disease resistance in a variety of crops. CEO Jose Salguero Linares explains:
“Harnessing plant biotechnology, we have developed a boost to the plants’ own immune system. Our patented “Pikobodies” work in the plant and confer additional resistance to the plant. This potentially enables us to bring ‘new-to-nature’ traits to plants and help combat some of the major crop diseases.
From the crop to the clinic
EffectorMED is using machine learning for protein design, using the scientists’ deep knowledge of plant genetics to eliminate harmful disease-causing proteins. CEO Roberto Hofmann is excited about the potential for human therapeutics:
“Many human diseases are caused by proteins acquiring new functions” he commented “So by selectively targeting these proteins and leaving the correct versions, there is real potential to combat human diseases – all inspired by plants!”
From purple tomatoes to pink pineapples
If you think tomatoes only come in red or yellow, think again, advises Nathan Pumplin, CEO of Norfolk Healthy Produce, which has commercialised research introducing purple anthocyanins into tomatoes.
Anthocyanins are responsible for the pigmentation of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables and act as antioxidants, which are thought to play a role in protecting against cancer. Now approved for sale and consumption in the US, purple tomatoes are being scaled up and commercialised. Inspired by Del Monte’s pink pineapples (bred to carry the red pigment gene from tomatoes), Nathan is enthused by the level of demand from consumers and growers.
A research engine for commercial success
As the capacity of scientific research has increased globally, so has the amount of – and need for – more data. Get Genome aims to democratise genomics research around the world, promoting collaborations between scientists. CEO James Canham is optimistic about the potential philanthropic impact of this sharing approach.
Decades of research underway by Prof. Jonathan Jones has led to the development of Maris Piper potatoes, designed to be resistant to late blight disease. A round table discussion with a eclectic mix of participants – including two Deputy Lord Lieutenants of Norfolk – revealed a positive approach to science in the food system and reflected an appetite among growers for material generated by biotechnology.