VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland will coordinate the large EU research project called SmartCell. The four-year project focuses on developing methods for production of valuable pharmaceutical compounds using plant cells as a production host in an effective and controlled manner.
The methods based on plant biotechnology are an alternative to chemical synthesis. By controlling the cell metabolism of a 'green factory', i.e. a living plant cell, it is possible to affect the production of desired high-value compounds. This kind of metabolic engineering also stimulates the cells towards producing completely new compounds.
Plants generate valuable secondary metabolic compounds, which can be used as pharmaceuticals. Most of these compounds are so complex that their chemical synthesis is not economically feasible. This is why biotechnology opens up a whole new avenue of possibilities. The SmartCell project will focus on terpene compounds, which are valuable for the pharmaceutical industry. These compounds for example are used in the treatment of cancer and malaria. The expertise and technology created during the project can be applied to a considerable extent in developing the biotechnological production of other compound groups in plants and plant cells.
"The opportunities offered by plant biotechnology could be much more extensively exploited in the pharmaceutical industry. The latest research methods can be used to intensify the production of valuable agents in plant cells; in a manner of speaking, plant cells could become real 'green factories'," says project coordinator, Chief Research Scientist Kirsi-Marja Oksman-Caldentey of VTT.
The SmartCell project brings together research partners from fourteen leading European research institutes and universities as well as three small and medium-sized and two major industrial enterprises. In addition to VTT, the project participants include e.g. VIB (Belgium), Leiden University (the Netherlands), Lleida University (Spain) and Fraunhofer IME Aachen, (Germany). The project's total budget is EUR 8.5 million, of which the EU's contribution is EUR 6 million. The contractual negotiations will soon be concluded, and the project will start in January 2009.
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