MN greenhouse moves from vegetables to medicine

Farm Forum

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (AP) — For Dave Roeser, it’s not just about salad anymore.

St. Paul’s award-winning hydroponic gardener will still grow vegetables but is adding medicinal plants. He plans to raise 100,000 genetically modified plants to produce medicine for cancer, flu and – potentially – Ebola.

“This is exciting,” Roeser, a retired controller for Hewlett-Packard, tells the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Roeser has been operating a Maplewood greenhouse to produce vegetables for his company, Garden Fresh Farms. He will continue growing vegetables in a new location in St. Paul but has cofounded a new company – MnPharm – to convert the Maplewood greenhouse into a biological drug factory.

Scientists – and Roeser – see great potential in using plants to produce vaccines.

That’s because vaccines traditionally have been made by the cumbersome process of injecting weakened germs into chicken eggs. The 70-year-old process uses millions of eggs annually for flu vaccine alone, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But an alternative method, relying on tobacco plants, is sprouting up across the country:

• Medicago USA reports that it is selling flu vaccine made from tobacco plants in a North Carolina facility and is working on a rabies vaccine.

• Fraunhofer USA now has the capability to produce 2.5 million units of flu vaccine in seven days in its Delaware plant, according to the Healthline website. The plant relies on tobacco plants.

• CNN reported in October that the PlantForm company of Canada is using tobacco to produce a drug that slows the growth of breast cancer tumors.

• Kentucky BioProcessing of Owensboro, Ky., is growing tobacco to be used in production of a drug to treat Ebola, according to the website

• The University of Louisville is leading a $15 million effort to develop an AIDS vaccine using tobacco plants, according to the university’s website.

In Minnesota, no comparable plant-based drug facilities have been built, although two medical marijuana facilities are expected to be operational this summer. Roeser hopes that his drug farm will be operating later this year.

How did tobacco – the killer of millions of people- become a potential lifesaver?

Roeser said that tobacco, more than any other plant known to science, is suited for rapid development of vaccines.

The process starts when the plants are exposed to genetic material related to the disease. The material grows along with the plant, until the plants are harvested and pureed to extract the vaccine.

MnPharm co-founder Jeff Reinert said the process is similar to genetically modifying food crops to become, for example, drought-resistant or more nutritious.

“This could be for anything – cancer, flu, Ebola,” Roeser said. He is particularly interested in medicines that fight cancer. “I lost a brother and, last summer, my uncle to cancer,” he said. “I have a passion for this.”

Until recently, Roeser was content with growing vegetables.

In the mid-2000s, he developed a system to grow plants and fish side-by-side in a warehouse.

For the plants, he uses 3-foot-wide cylinders. He runs lights down the center of each cylinder and puts seedlings facing inward toward the light.

In another room are tanks the size of hot tubs, full of fish.

The water in the tanks is brown with fish excrement – disgusting to humans, but essential for plants.

The nitrogen-rich water is pumped into the trays beneath the rollers, and every 30 minutes, the rollers revolve to let the plants slurp it up.

In that way, Roeser grows Garden Fresh lettuce, basil and oregano to sell in local grocery stores.

But recently, he decided to turn to growing plants for healing.

His company, MnPharm, was one of the first to be created with a new legal designation — a public benefit corporation, or PBC.

State law began allowing PBCs after Jan. 1. The new corporations are hybrids of nonprofits and for-profit businesses, according to PBC expert Jeff Ochs, who lobbied for the bill and worked on drafting the legislation.

A PBC is charged not only with making money but with working toward the company’s social goals. While a business can be sued by shareholders for not maximizing profits, PBCs may consider social goals as well as making money.

The advantage for MnPharm, said Roeser, is that it can work on vaccines that aren’t necessarily the most profitable. He said that MnPharm might develop “orphan drugs” for small numbers of patients, something that big companies would not bother with.

Minnesota might not have a tradition of tobacco farming, but, Roeser said, his cylinder gardens have advantages:

• They are entirely indoors. “Weather does not matter to us,” he said.

• They are compact. He plans to grow the plants in 6,000 square feet of space – which is one-sixteenth as large as a comparable tobacco greenhouse or farm.

• The plants use only 5 percent of the water of an outdoor field.

And they might be able to reduce health care costs, by cutting the cost of manufacturing drugs. A small operation like his, said Roeser, could produce vaccines more rapidly and at lower cost.

For now, the company is seeking investors. Roeser doesn’t know specifically what medicines he will be producing, but he is looking for a drug company to order whatever it needs.

In the next year, cofounder Reinert expects few bureaucratic hurdles. That’s because MnPharm is not developing and testing new medicines, only producing copies of existing vaccines and drugs.

“We are not doing any activity that is not taking place somewhere else, but just using a different medium,” Reinert said. “It is faster, cheaper, safer.”