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PlantBioP - Plantproduced BioPharmaceuticals

  • Head: Associated Professor Mag. Dr Herta Steinkellner, Department of Applied Genetics and Cell Biology
  • Grant recipient: University of Natural Resources and Life Science, Vienna
  • Partners: Bayer BioScience AG | Vienna University of Natural Resources and Life Science, Department of Chemistry

Highly effective drugs made from tobacco plants

Herta Steinkellner from the Department of Applied Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Science in Vienna is in charge of the Laura Bassi Centre of Expertise PlantBioP. Based on genetically modified plants, the Centre is developing a method to manufacture highly effective drugs at a low cost.


The use of genetically modified phyto organisms that produce drugs for research is a new branch of pharmaceutical biotechnology. Research on pharmaceutical plants has been done for over ten years, with first successes beginning to show now. Applying them for the production of drugs is likely to be a lot more cost-effective than conventional methods, which are mostly based on mammalian cells. Tobacco is particularly suitable for use as a pharmaceutical plant since it grows rapidly and is easy to modify genetically.

New method for more effective plant proteins

Genetic engineer Herta Steinkellner from the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Science in Vienna points the way to the future with the PlantBioP research project: in her Laura Bassi Centre of Expertise she grows tobacco plants that are to produce drugs. She and her team are testing an innovative method to generate so-called glyco mutants. i.e. plants whose proteins have a modified sugar structure. Most protein pharmaceuticals require the attachment of sugars (glycosylation) to be as effective as possible. The protein modified thus can then be exploited for pharmaceutical production. The Laura Bassi Centre’s main task is to test various mutants of protein and sugar structures and to research their pharmacological effect. The objective is to produce cost-effective, therapeutically potent drugs in these genetically modified plants. The first step in testing the research will be to optimise the drug EPO (erythropoietin) – i.e. a drug that increases the number of red blood cells as a follow-up treatment after chemotherapy – which has gained notoriety as a doping agent. A further objective of the PlantBioP project is to enhance the therapeutic effect of antibodies for cancer treatment by means of glyco mutants. At a later point, the new method is to be used to develop and enhance other drugs as well.

A place among the scientific elite thanks to pharmaceutical plants

Molecular biologist Herta Steinkellner from the Department of Applied Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Natural Resources and Life Science in Vienna grew up in Lavanttal valley and studied biology in Vienna. A student job at the Vienna General Hospital’s Human Genetics Laboratory sparked her enthusiasm for genetic diagnostics. She has been doing biotechnological basic research using pharmaceutical plants ever since then. She has worked at the renowned SCRIPPS Research Institute in the USA as well as in the United Kingdom and Japan, and has made a name for herself internationally on account of her research on transgenic plants. The scientist promotes a highly motivating working atmosphere in her team and it is important for her to offer her employees flexible working hours, which is a particular benefit for the women on the team. For in her experience, taking over tasks that maintain the structure can turn into a career trap a for female scientists: “Female researchers run the risk of being given an excessive amount of administrative tasks. In my Laura Bassi Centre I take great care that these duties are shared equally among the staff.”