Skip to main content
Move the World.
biopharmaceutical drug for parkinsons

Lead Image Courtesy of Phil Robinson

Sometimes, the best place to make medicine isn't a laboratory — it's a tobacco plant or a chicken egg.

A drug produced in (or from) a living creature is called a biopharmaceutical, or biologic, and the category includes medications to treat diabetes, breast cancer, arthritis, and a host of other diseases.

The latest to join their ranks is a Parkinson's disease treatment that researchers just figured out how to grow using tomatoes — a discovery that could make the essential drug accessible to far more people.

Biopharmaceutical 101

Living things are basically nature's science labs — they create different chemicals that undergo various processes, reacting and interacting in often predictable ways.

Some are naturally perfect for manufacturing a biopharmaceutical.

Viruses, for example, need to be in living cells to replicate, and every year, we need a new supply of the flu virus to turn into vaccines. About 70 years ago, researchers started injecting the virus into chicken eggs, letting it replicate, and then extracting it from there.

Other times, we can make living things into perfect drug manufacturers.

For example, several decades ago, researchers successfully inserted the human gene for producing insulin into some bacteria. The bacteria then started producing the hormone, which we can now harvest and purify for people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.

The new biopharmaceutical for Parkinson's falls into this second category.

Limitations of L-DOPA

There isn't a cure for Parkinson's, but the drug Levodopa (L-DOPA) is one of the best known treatments for its symptoms. It's prescribed more often than any other medication for Parkinson's, and the WHO includes it on its list of the world's "essential" medicines.

Scientists are able to create the drug in the lab, but the synthetic version of Levodopa can cause nausea and other side effects — Parkinson's patients have to take other drugs to combat those.

Additionally, a prescription for synthetic Levodopa costs about $2 a day, which is more than some Parkinson's patients — particularly those in developing nations — can afford.

Some plants, like the beetroot, naturally produce Levodopa, but the quantities are tiny. Other plants create it in quantities that are worthwhile, but none are ideal sources — the seeds of the velvet bean, for example, are up to 10% Levodopa, but they're also covered in bristles that can cause allergic reactions in the people harvesting them.

Plant Power

Now, researchers at the John Innes Centre have developed a biopharmaceutical alternative.

By isolating the gene that produces Levodopa in beetroot and inserting it into a tomato plant, they were able to get the tomatoes to contain higher levels of Levodopa — for every kilogram of tomatoes grown from the plants, they got 150 milligrams of Levodopa.

"A local industry could prepare L-DOPA from tomatoes."

Cathie Martin

That's about as much as some other plants produce naturally, but tomatoes wouldn't be nearly as difficult to harvest. Growers would just need to ensure their pollen doesn't spread to the wild.

"You could grow them in screen houses, controlled environments with very narrow meshes, so you would not have pollen escape through insects," researcher Cathie Martin said in a press release. "Then you could scale up at relatively low cost."

"A local industry could prepare L-DOPA from tomatoes because it's soluble and you can do extractions," she added. "Then you could make a purified product relatively low tech which could be dispensed locally."

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Medical Innovation
Symptoms of Parkinson's Are the Only Way to Diagnose It. But Not for Long.
symptoms of parkinsons
Medical Innovation
Symptoms of Parkinson's Are the Only Way to Diagnose It. But Not for Long.
Researchers discovered a new way to diagnose and track Parkinson's disease progression — even before the first symptoms of Parkinson's appear.

Researchers discovered a new way to diagnose and track Parkinson's disease progression — even before the first symptoms of Parkinson's appear.

Dispatches
"Cybersecurity for Plants" Can Stop Germs from Hacking Our Food Supply
Dispatches
"Cybersecurity for Plants" Can Stop Germs from Hacking Our Food Supply
Computer hackers exploit flaws in code to access systems and take what they want; plant diseases work the same way.
By John Herlihy

Computer hackers exploit flaws in code to access systems and take what they want; plant diseases work the same way.

Future of Medicine
Reading Your Digital Signature to Detect Depression, Parkinson’s
Digital phenotyping mental health disorders
Future of Medicine
Reading Your Digital Signature to Detect Depression, Parkinson’s
Digital phenotyping uses our smartphones to detect anything from Parkinson's disease to mental health disorders.

Digital phenotyping uses our smartphones to detect anything from Parkinson's disease to mental health disorders.

CRISPR
Gene-Edited Squid: A Breakthrough in Brain Health Research
gene edited squid
CRISPR
Gene-Edited Squid: A Breakthrough in Brain Health Research
Researchers use CRISPR to create a gene-edited squid. This work could help advance research on neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's or Alzheimer's.

Researchers use CRISPR to create a gene-edited squid. This work could help advance research on neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's or Alzheimer's.

Could Growing Vaccines in Plants Save Lives?
Could Growing Vaccines in Plants Save Lives?
Watch Now
Could Growing Vaccines in Plants Save Lives?
Vaccines for influenza, polio, smallpox, even Ebola have all be grown … in plants.
Watch Now

This flu season has been nasty in large part because the vaccine didn’t work as well as past versions. So scientists like Professor George Lomonossoff of the John Innes Centre are on the hunt for new ways to make better vaccines and think they might have found one -- by growing them in plants.

Superhuman
Is the Miracle Medicine of the Future About to Become the Totally Real Medicine of...
Is the Miracle Medicine of the Future About to Become the Totally Real Medicine of the Present?
Superhuman
Is the Miracle Medicine of the Future About to Become the Totally Real Medicine of...
Gene therapy uses a virus to replace missing or defective genes. It sounds counterintuitive, but it could be the...
By Mike Riggs

Gene therapy uses a virus to replace missing or defective genes. It sounds counterintuitive, but it could be the key to curing previously incurable diseases.

On The Fringe
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Watch Now
On The Fringe
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Twenty people die every day in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant. There aren’t enough organs for the 100,000...
Watch Now

Twenty people die every day in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant. There aren’t enough organs for the 100,000 people waiting for one. And there likely never will be… unless we can find a better way to source them. Enter: the pigs. A team of scientists has figured out how to grow human organs in pigs. It might make you feel weird. But it also might save countless lives.

Disaster Response
Starlink Satellites Bring Internet to Wildfire-Ravaged State
Starlink satellites
Disaster Response
Starlink Satellites Bring Internet to Wildfire-Ravaged State
SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are providing residents and emergency responders affected by Washington wildfires with access to reliable internet.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are providing residents and emergency responders affected by Washington wildfires with access to reliable internet.