A Minnesota firm develops targeted cancer treatments using tobacco and ‘orbiting gardens.’
By Stephanie Banfield
Demonized for decades due to its longtime status as a leading cause of cancer, tobacco has spent the past half-century under fire by public health groups that are quick to point out the detrimental effects associated with the use of products derived from the plant. A social benefit corporation situated in America’s heartland, however, is turning the tables on tobacco and using the highly transgenic plant to develop personalized treatments for patients battling cancer—an effort that could help tobacco shed its stigma and ultimately result in praise for its life-saving abilities.
Founded in 2014—and incorporated in January 2015—MNPHARM is an innovative biotech startup based in Maplewood, Minnesota, whose primary focus is addressing significant public health challenges through the use of plant-based medicine. The brainchild of Dave Roeser and Jeff Reinert, MNPHARM combines technological advances in biochemistry with controlled indoor agriculture to produce cutting-edge medical treatments for a disease that more than 1.6 million individuals in the U.S. alone will be diagnosed with this year.
“Cancer was something that really struck a chord with Jeff and me,” says Roeser. “I lost my favorite uncle last summer, and my brother about three years ago, to cancer. My business partner in another business, his wife passed away about a year ago from cancer—so there have been a lot of tie-ins. Jeff and I also have a friend who just passed away about three months ago of cancer, so cancer has been kind of robbing us of people we care about. We wanted to really do something that could impact that.”
Armed with an agricultural knowledge base developed while establishing another enterprise—Garden Fresh Farms, an indoor farm that practices aquaponics and produces 11 different types of herbs and lettuce for grocery stores—Roeser saw an opportunity to apply his expertise in indoor agriculture to a brand-new endeavor: MNPHARM.
“With Garden Fresh Farms, we invented some equipment to be able to grow plants indoors, and we’ve been growing that company for about five years,” says Roeser. “You could say it was like marketing 101: OK, we’ve got a good product, so let’s find a new and improved use for it. We were talking to some doctors who were saying, ‘Have you looked into this tobacco-based medicine? Because it looks like your machines would be perfect for growing that indoors.’ So that’s why we started looking into this seriously, and then that’s when Jeff and I formed MNPHARM as a corporation—after doing some research and finding out that, yes, this would work; this would be a great company. And it really fit with what we wanted to do as far as trying to make an impact. It’s been pretty exciting that way.”
Roeser and Reinert transformed a 20,000-square-foot warehouse building in Maplewood into a high-tech indoor farm facility where high yields of tobacco can be grown year-round using MNPHARM’s patent-pending orbiting gardens. In addition to preventing the tobacco plants from coming into contact with potentially harmful outside forces—such as chemical runoff, pollution, inclement weather and invasive species—the company’s indoor orbiting gardens eliminate some of the most common problems faced by both outdoor farms and greenhouses: a lack of space and an overuse of energy.
“Basically, what we can grow in about 6,000 square feet using the orbiting garden would take somewhere close to about 90,000 square feet if you were doing it in a greenhouse,” says Roeser. “So here we are in Minnesota, growing plants all year-round, but we are doing it indoors. When you are growing indoors, there are two hurdles that you have to overcome: One is density, and the other is energy use. The orbiting garden that we designed and patented basically conquers both of those things. It allows us to—in a very sterile way—be able to grow these plants in controlled, smaller rooms and be able to harvest a tremendous amount of mass from a very small footprint.”
Following a germination period that lasts between two and three weeks, the tobacco plants are taken to the orbiting gardens, where they are placed upside down and sideways onto a device that, according to Roeser, is much more efficient than the lighted shelving units typically found in conventional indoor agricultural operations.
“You see people growing things indoors on factory shelving with lights, but what we do is take those shelves and curve them, and we put them on a cylinder that is 8 feet long and 4 feet wide,” he says. “Then the plants grow toward the middle, and we put one light fixture down the middle. The roots actually stick to the outside of this drum, and it slowly turns and dips into a fertilizer solution. It takes about a half-hour to make a complete cycle. So we’re able to get quite a bit more growth in a much smaller space.”
By significantly reducing the amount of space required to grow high yields, MNPHARM is able to produce several small batches of tobacco at once—each of which has been developed to treat an individual’s specific type of cancer. This use of targeted batches—rather than the one-size-fits-all approach common in today’s cancer treatments—makes it possible to offer personalized treatments that increase the odds of achieving success and reduces the number of harsh or invasive treatments to which a cancer patient is subjected.
“Because of our orbiting gardens, we can do very small batches of growing so we could do a targeted treatment,” says Roeser. “Cancer is never the same with two people, and it has to do with DNA. So instead of what happens normally with cancer—where there are about seven or eight different drugs that you try and you see which one doesn’t kill you first, or you’ve got chemotherapy and that kills all cells—this is a way to very personally target treatment for individuals that will be an exact match for the cancer that they have. Our equipment makes it possible.”
Once an individual has been diagnosed with cancer, a doctor will perform a biopsy and send it to MNPHARM to design a corresponding vector. This vector is introduced into a bacterium, which is then injected into one of MNPHARM’s tobacco plants. The tobacco plant produces a considerable amount of antibodies. About six days later—30 times faster than traditional methods of cancer treatment—those cancer-fighting antibodies are extracted and refined before being reintroduced into the patient’s body, where they continue to attack the same type of cancer they fought within the tobacco plant.
“If somebody has cancer, we could take a biopsy of that and do the research and find out where the DNA has basically gone haywire, and then what we do is come up with a vector, and we infect the plant,” says Roeser. “The plant then grows the antibody or the cancer treatment that’s going to stick to that cancer. And basically it encapsulates it and changes that person so that the cancer is no longer a threat.”
Advances in biochemistry
The creation of the company’s orbiting gardens—arguably the most important piece of equipment in MNPHARM’s agricultural arsenal—is not the only technological advancement that plays an integral role in the development of personalized treatments for cancer patients.
“The other thing that makes this possible is that there have been tremendous advances in biochemistry and DNA mapping, and what was impossible three years ago is now very common with gene splicing,” says Roeser. “You can cut out and put some new genetic coding into DNA. Because of that, we can now make that tobacco plant be the factory for us. We are combining these technologies—indoor agriculture and the new DNA splicing technology—so this is why it’s possible now whereas a couple years ago it wasn’t possible.”
Although it may seem ironic for a company to fight cancer using a plant whose properties have been linked to the disease for decades, tobacco was perhaps the best option available because it is both highly transgenic and capable of producing antibodies for use in plant-based medicines much more quickly than others—such as rice or eggs.
“A lot of vaccines, like the flu vaccine, are made with chicken eggs, so in March [doctors] had to decide what people were going to be sick with [this] winter because it takes six months to grow those using chicken eggs,” says Roeser. “But tobacco plants we can actually grow up to a certain stage, and then we inoculate it to infiltrate the plant and get the DNA to start to change the cells and get the cells starting to grow something slightly different. It’s still a tobacco plant, but its RNA [ribonucleic acid] has basically changed and it’s growing the antibody that we just told it to. And in that case, it can be as late as the last week of the plant’s life that you can get a tremendously high yield. So when you think about the egg versus tobacco, and you think which one has greater mass in a shorter period of time, that’s why tobacco works so great.”
Despite the massive potential that lies within plant-based medicine—including MNPHARM’s use of tobacco plants to fight cancer—Roeser notes a major hurdle that MNPHARM will likely face when it comes to giving patients access to the company’s cutting-edge products: securing approval of the treatments from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a timely manner. To meet this challenge, however, MNPHARM will serve as a contract manufacturer for tobacco-based cancer treatments, helping to speed up the approval process over time and provide patients with access to life-saving medicine as quickly as possible.
“We’ve found that being a contract manufacturer really fits our skills best,” says Roeser. “What that’s going to do is help speed things up coming through labs, getting to commercialize quicker, getting things through FDA approval—and if we can really impact that, so we’re shaving days, months or years off of some of the FDA approval process, that’s going to impact a lot of people’s lives.”
Combining an extensive knowledge of indoor agricultural practices with the latest advances in gene and DNA mapping and splicing techniques, the team at MNPHARM has been working tirelessly with research partners since its inception to create customized treatments to combat a condition that dramatically alters—or claims—the lives of millions of individuals every year.
“Sometimes I think, ‘If I’d only done this sooner—if I had done this 10 years ago, my brother might be alive today.’ So the people that we know who might be so positively impacted by this, that’s what really makes this extremely gratifying. This is something that really makes us excited to keep on persisting. When you have a startup company, you have setbacks and you have good things, but the impact on people’s lives that we can bring is what really gets us up and excited every day.”