Within several years, people may no longer need to take injections or pills, but can eat therapeutic vegetables instead, thanks to a project led by researchers from Penn.

Led by Dental School professor and biochemist Henry Daniell, the project is developing a new platform for drug manufacturing and delivery by growing vegetables, like lettuce leaves, in an attempt to make health care affordable for the global community.

“The primary rationale for this research is to lower the cost of health care,” Daniell said. “This is really out-of-the-box thinking. Our living cells can make protein, so why not use plant cells?”

Kwangchul Kwon, a postdoctoral fellow who joined the team in 2009, said in an email that this system has numerous advantages over current systems for producing therapeutic proteins.

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The new system, Kwon said, requires no complex or expensive purification systems and will not have bacterial contamination. It is also more convenient and safe because it will eliminate storage restrictions, such as constant refrigeration, that current medications require, he added.

Jin Su, another postdoctoral fellow on the team who focuses on hemophilia and Pompe’s disease, agreed.

“The lettuce vegetable ‘drugs’ will be delivered [orally], not by injection,” he said in an email. “It is much more economical compared to the traditional delivery method.”

“Plant system is very promising for the production of therapeutic proteins,” Kwon added. “Considering the cost of medicine is up to $300 per month for type II diabetes, our cost-effective system can reduce the burden of medical cost imposed on patients.”

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Daniell said that a large part of the reason why pharmaceuticals are so expensive is the cost for complex technology and facilities. For example, he said, on a recent trip to a big pharmaceutical company, he learned that one non-reusable column used for drug purification can cost up to $12 million.

“Drugs are expensive,” Daniell said. “What good is it if a vaccine is only available to one person in the world population? I think it’s immoral.”

The project has received funding from various organization, including millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2009. Recently, the team set up an advanced greenhouse with automatic systems to grow experimental plants at the University’s South Bank campus.

Daniell said they’ve come close to the finish line and have been signing agreements with major pharmaceutical companies for protein development on this platform. Two immediate applications of the technology will be a better solution for autoimmune diabetes and a polio vaccine.

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Daniell said the new type of medicine will cost pennies compared to the cost of current drugs, and could be available soon.

“Probably in the next three to five years, this new-age technology will be available to the public,” he added.

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