Two SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies have been replicated at the ENEA Casaccia Research Center (Rome) at reduced cost and time compared to conventional methods, using a wild species of tobacco plant as a “biofactory” (Nicotiana benthamiana) by a team comprising ENEA, Cnr and Fondazione Toscana Life Sciences (TLS). The findings were published in the leading international journal Frontiers in Plant Science.
In a first phase, TLS researchers isolated one of the two antibodies with a powerful neutralizing action against the virus, in a COVID-19 patient; then the ENEA scientists replicated the antibody in Nicotiana benthamiana plants using the Plant Molecular Farming biotechnological platform, capable of synthesizing bioactive molecules with high added value. The obtained molecule was then biochemically characterized by the CNR researchers.
“The results obtained allowed us to demonstrate that the antibodies produced in plants can stop the replication of SARS-CoV-2, maintaining the same functional capabilities of the equivalent molecules produced with traditional systems”, pointed out Marcello Donini, researcher at the ENEA Biotechnology Laboratory. “The result – he said- is proof that the technology used at ENEA could be a valid alternative to the “conventional” platforms based on cell cultures to make neutralizing antibodies, to be used both in therapy and diagnostics, capable of rapidly satisfying domestic demand at significantly lower costs”.
The expansion of the Plant Molecular Farming platform from laboratory scale to pilot scale would enable the production of sufficient antibodies for evaluation in clinical trials in about 3-4 months, versus the 6-7 of production systems in mammalian cells, allowing to respond immediately and effectively to possible pandemic emergencies and at reduced production costs, without using genetically modified plants.
The team was comprised of Marcello Donini, Rachele Frigerio, Carla Marusic, Maria Elena Villani, Chiara Lico, Cristina Capodicasa and Selene Baschieri (ENEA – Laboratory of Biotechnology); Rino Rappuoli, Emanuele Andreano and Ida Paciello (TLS); Andrea Scaloni and Anna Maria Salzano (Cnr – ISPAAM).
ENEA has dedicated over twenty years to exploring this technological sector focusing in particular on the development of molecules of pharmaceutical interest like vaccines (including genetic vaccines enhanced by plant sequences), anticancer antibodies, tests and diagnostic assays for human and veterinary medicine.