PlantForm gearing up to ‘grow’ breast cancer drug using tobacco as a host

Some companies and the individuals that work for them are just naturally attracted to Sarnia-Lambton, perhaps for the infrastructure, perhaps the talented and available workforce, perhaps the proximity to the U.S. border or any of dozens of other reasons.

In the case of David Cayea, director of international relations and business development for PlantForm, Sarnia is, in fact, home.

“I’m from here and I wanted to be back,” says Cayea, who worked for several years in the United Arab Emirates before making a family decision to return at least to North America if not his native Sarnia.

Looking for an opportunity to return to the area, Cayea discovered PlantForm, a startup that is licensing technology to “grow” a biological equivalent to what is now a patent-protected breast cancer drug.

That drug, marketed under the Herceptin brand of trastuzumab, comes off patent in Europe in 2014 and in North America in 2017.

Currently a $6 billion drug, Cayea and the PlantForm team are gearing up to produce a generic equivalent of what is now a patent-protected breast cancer drug sold by Roche under the Herceptin brand and used in about 30% of breast cancer treatments.

Their “host” is, oddly enough, one of the most researched plants on the planet: tobacco.

“We’ll be using tobacco because of how the plant grows and the amount of bio-mass it produces,” says Cayea, who adds that PlantForm plans  to develop and produce drugs for other cancer and inflammatory-disease drugs that are forecast to have combined annual global sales of $35.3 billion by 2013.

“Tobacco is a fairly sturdy stock, with lots of leaves and it has a short gestation period, allowing us to grow up our drug in a six-to-eight week period,” he adds.

It’s also considerably less expensive to produce than what is currently available.

“Treatments range from $40,000 to $100,000,” says Cayea. “We will be able to produce a vial of the drug, which now costs $1,000, for under $100.”

Currently, PlantForm has about 30 angel investors and Cayea is among several minority shareholders.

Dr. Chris Hall, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Recombinant Antibody Technology in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph, is co-founder of PlantForm. In the early 1990s, he recognized the manufacturing and regulatory advantages of using tobacco plants to produce low-cost antibody drugs.

The technology he developed overcomes a number of issues associated with animal-derived antibody production: it allows for higher yields, lowers costs and eliminates animal welfare concerns.

PlantForm is currently gearing up for what is referred to as Phase 1 human clinical trials, a process that will cost the company $10 million.

Eventually the generic product (technically referred to as Subsequent Entry Biologics or SEBs) will be produced in a controlled greenhouse environment.

But that’s down the road.

With only a dozen employees (Cayea is the only one in Sarnia), PlantForm is at least three years away from generating any revenue, a key reason the search for investors is an ongoing process.

PlantForm can be contacted through its website ( David Cayea can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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