Editor’s note: BioWatch is a regular feature on Fridays.

GREENVILLE, NC … Plant extracts in the libraries of PhytoMyco Research Corp. may one day help fight cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, says founder and president Ven Subbiah. But plant biotech could also help replace the state’s waning tobacco industry if it receives more support, he believes.

Founded in 1999, PhytoMyco has successfully attracted $600,000 in research grants for using its high tech assays to hunt down plants and plant extracts with important biological activity. The National Institute of Health, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and the NC Biotechnology Center awarded the grants and four more are pending, says Subbiah. The company also has $1 million in collaboration relationships with other companies, he adds.

North Carolina’s biotech strategy plan presented to Gov. Easley earlier this year by a blue-ribbon committee of public, private, and academic leaders, stressed the need to spread the industry’s largesse statewide. One way it suggests doing that is by taking advantage of the state’s historically large agricultural sector and it’s wealth of natural flora in mountains to the shore environments to become a leader in not just agribio, but also in growing plants for nutraceuticals (supplements such as herbs and extracts) and medicines.

Dr. Maria Rapoza, Director of our Science and Technology Development Program, and the NC Biotechnology Center’s agricultural biotech expert, tells LTW:

“Many communities across North Carolina have agriculture as their economic basis. Biotechnology has multiple uses that can give our state’s farmers a competitive edge in today’s fast-moving agricultural marketplace. They can be used directly to improve plants grown as agricultural commodities. Added nutritional value and the addition of new traits with medically benefits are areas where biotechnology can help make a difference.”

The state already has a fledgling industry developing along those lines, with Crop Technologies in Winston Salem and PhytoMyco in Greenville, among a few others. Genetically modified cotton crops help North Carolina farmers.

Not all are thriving. Pilot Therapeutics, which was developing a plant-based compound to treat asthma, closed its doors not long ago after moving from the Triad to South Carolina.

Rejected $1.5 million

PhytoMyco has developed a library of 25,000 molecules from plant extracts that do things such as kill cancer cells but not normal ones, reduce blood pressure, help manage blood sugar, and that may help people lose weight.

While Subbiah says his company needs money to expand, he declined terms offered by a potential backer last month. “I turned down $1.5 million because the deal was too lop-sided,” Subbiah tells LTW. “We would like to hire at least 20 more people, but meeting milestones with collaborators will help us expand.

“This is a billion-plus market and I know how to make this a billion dollar company with a little support.”

Subbiah has 20 years experience in research and development of natural products at corporations and in academia. He holds adjunct positions at East Carolina’s Department of Biology and NC State University’s Dept of Agriculture.

Subbiah points out that both this month’s “Nature,” and the trade publication “Chemistry and Engineering News” ran editorials commenting on the promising outlook for natural products derived from plant sources.

Microbes and Nutraceuticals

Subbiah says the pendulum is swinging back toward seeking molecules from natural sources. The use of synthetic and combinational chemistry to create new molecules has not produced an expected wealth of new drugs.

PhytoMyco’s huge library of natural product molecules include several that kill cancer cells, may help treat blood pressure or diabetes and obesity. It collaborated with the National Cancer Institute to screen over 5,000 plant extracts and found hundreds of leads. It has also found lead molecules active against inflammation.

PhytoMyco purified its 5,000 botanical extracts into 25,000 well-defined phytochemicals. The company also identified several new sources of microbes and now has a collection of more than 3,000 (bacteria, fungi, yeasts) and their extracts. The company collected its extracts using proprietary screening and assay techniques. Its plants came from the southeastern U.S. and the exploratory seed collection and cultivation of plants on NC farms.

“Eighty percent of today’s prescription drugs originate from plants,” he says.

PhytoMyco also wants to introduce nutraceuticals developed via the same high level of scientific testing used for new drugs. “The problem with supplements now is standardization,” Subbiah notes. “Everyone cooks up what they want and puts it in a capsule. PhytoMyco emphasizes the need to validate safety and efficacy.”

He says the company has interesting lead compounds ready for clinical trials. “We have been negotiating with Duke Medical Center and East Carolina University Medical School to conduct trials,” Subbiah says. “Duke has a dietary supplement division, but it hasn’t done any clinical studies so far. We’re trying to interest them, but of course, funding is a concern.”

Subbiah thinks that growing plants for their valuable extracts could help replace the dying tobacco industry in the eastern part of the state. “With tobacco going down the drain, this is the right time for politicians to wake up and do something,” he suggests.

The company occupies 3,000 feet of space in Greenville and Subbiah says he would like to expand a processing plant there as well. He says the company is introducing five new crops on a tenth of an acre each. It has five to ten acres cultivated now that he would to see increased to 1,000 to 5,000 acres for crops to make dietary supplements from extracts.

Grant awarded

The NC Biotechnology Center recently awarded $158,824 to a UNC-Pembroke and NCSU collaboration to explore new methods of extracting nutraceuticals from plants.

Peter Kilpatrick of NCSU’s department of chemical engineering is the principal investigator.

The research is described as “a robust method for extracting nutraceuticals and other value-added compounds from plants.”

Researchers plan to illustrate the method by extracting lipids and vitamins from duckweed, a rapidly growing plant that can be exploited in a host of environments. Duckweed is particularly attractive because it can be readily genetically manipulated, is not a food crop for humans and can be grown on wastewaters.

Duckweed is the same plant used by Pittsboro-based Biolex to manufacture proteins in an enclosed aquatic environment that negates worries over containment issues when dealing with genetically modified plants.

PhytoMyco: www.phytomyco.net