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Underground pharming

Janet Babin Jun 13, 2006

PHOTO GALLERY: Controlled Pharming Ventures mine


KAI RYSSDAL: Buried deep in those inflation numbers I mentioned a minute ago was this little nugget. Wholesale drug prices rose 2 percent last month. That’s almost as much as gas. Pharmaceutical companies, though, can’t pull their product out of the ground. Today’s specialized drugs demand sophisticated manufacturing. So some companies are farming for medicine. Using genetically modified plants to grow their pharmaceuticals. That poses its own set of problems, and some opportunities for unusual solutions. From the Marketplace Innovations Desk right here at North Carolina Public Radio, Janet Babin has more.

JANET BABIN: Doug Ausenbaugh is the first to tell you he knows nothing about traditional farming. But he does know about growing plants underground. Way underground, in what looks like and echoes like an endless cave:

DOUG AUSENBAUGH:“There’s about 160 feet of rock above us.”

We’re in a former limestone mine in Marengo, Ind.

AUSENBAUGH: “Before man was here, this was . . . that was just a solid cliff and somebody came and dug all this out….”

Deep inside the mine, Ausenbaugh’s company, Controlled Pharming Ventures grows crops in two insulated, plastic covered structures, each about the size of an average bedroom.

He tightly controls humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide through lights and air flow.

It’s all a little creepy . . . like science fiction. Until you see it in operation. Then it starts to make sense. That’s why Ausenbaugh and his colleague Weston Rink lead a lot of community tours:

GIRL: “So is this for you guys, or did somebody ask you to do this?”

AUSENBAUGH: Ah, a little of both.

Like this group of Future Farmers of America. The teenage girls shivered in the mine’s 50-degree darkness. The boys seemed to like it. But their comfort level reversed when they got the chance to go inside the plant rooms:

AUSENBAUGH: “We can open the door, let you peak in here, give you an idea of how warm it is. It’s usually about 80 degrees. It’s like a hot summer day. And we’re able to do that every day of the year.

BOY: No way. It’s too hot in there.

GIRL: Feels pretty good!”

The corn’s about 5 feet tall. Ausenbaugh says it matures in 70 days, compared to the 120 days it would take in an Indiana field.

But besides speed, why use all that electricity just to produce corn you could grow outside? Because even though Ausenbaugh’s crops might look like food crops, they’re genetically modified. Some of them can’t be caught co-mingling with the food supply.

A handful of companies make these transgenic plants for pharmaceutical or industrial use. If the plants are grown underground, there’s much less of a chance that they’ll contaminate traditional food crops. Hope Shand is a farmer’s advocate with the Etcetera Group:

HOPE SHAND:“I mean no one wants to be eating corn flakes that have human genes in them, or tofu that’s contaminated with some other industrial chemical.”

The Grocery Manufacturer’s of America and the American Society for Plant Biologists agree. They’ve called for zero-tolerance to transgenic plants in food crops.

But Arkansas State University professor Dr. Elizabeth Hood says the fear of cross-contamination is overblown:

ELIZABETH HOOD:“The call for zero tolerance is an unrealistic expectation and it is also not something that is applied to any other industry in the history of mankind.”

But there has been contamination in the past. In 2002, the government fined a company called Prodigene after its corn started growing, uninvited, in a Nebraska soybean field. The corn was genetically modified to create a pig vaccine.

Duke University biology professor Dr. Claire Williams says especially after that incident, startups realized they could make money by answering this question:

CLAIRE WILLIAMS:“How can we grow protein-based compounds without endangering our food supply.”

Williams says underground mines like Ausenbaugh’s are one solution. Another is growing the proteins inside, above ground, in non-food plants.

DAVID SPENSER:“So, here’s some of our duckweed. There are what we call scale vessels . . . “

Dr. David Spenser is COO of Biolex. The company puts strands of human DNA into a plant that looks like a tiny lily pad. The duckweed is then taught to make a corresponding human protein that’s used in the drug interferon. If clinical trails go well, protein bits from this plant would go on to treat cancer and hepatitis.

SPENSER:“Each plant cell is kind of a factory in that it’s making a protein and putting it into the water and our bit of the factory is to take what it makes and turn it into a drug.”

Spenser says Biolex can get a plant protein factory up and running in 18 months. That’s fast compared to the more than four years it would take for a traditional pharma factory to come online. But plant factories are only more efficient if products made from them are government approved and doctor prescribed. So far, that hasn’t happened. So it’s not clear how many more underground farms are in our future.

In Durham, N.C., I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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