New medical niche for British crops?

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Farmers could be growing more high value crops for pharmaceuticals in the UK if promising research into treating an aggressive form of lymphoma proves successful.

The project, which is based at the University of Plymouth’s £17m Derriford Research Facility, has discovered that specific essential oils inhibit cancer cell growth in Mantle Cell lymphoma – a so far untreatable form of this aggressive disease.

“Mantle Cell lymphoma has a survival rate of just three to five years,” explains project leader Dr Lynn McCallum, associate professor of haematology at Plymouth University.

“No new biomedical compounds are helping to prolong patient survival, but plants have a better prevalence of producing the correct structure of bioactive compounds, and we’ve found some essential oils that have a growth inhibitory effect.”

Funded by Agri-Tech Cornwall, the research has benefited from links with other – seemingly unrelated – Agri-Tech start-up projects, including a vertical plant factory and a local lavender farm.

Cornish Essential Oils is seeking to add value to locally grown crops like lavender, bay, basil and mint by maximising the quality of the oil produced, for sale into the medical and cosmetics industry.

It, in turn, is working with Ginium and the Plant Factory, which have identified affordable ways to adjust the plant environment – including light intensity and spectrum – to increase yields and the concentration of beneficial compounds.

Ginium is now setting up a vertical growing unit at Cornish Essential Oils’ farm near Callington, where the two firms will compare the production of crops in a conventional polytunnel, environmentally managed polytunnel and environmentally managed shipping container.

“The aim is to manipulate the levels of essential oils to benefit the lymphoma research, while also adding value to the crop,” says Ian Sexton at Cornish Essential Oils.

The firm already has a market for its lavender for the next five years – and if the lymphoma research proves successful then demand is only likely to grow.

“We are creating a toolbox of technology that will make vertical growing more accessible,” explains George Journeaux, director of Ginium. “The plug and play technology is very easy to use and lower cost than traditional vertical growing systems. We’re taking vertical farming away from being niche to becoming more commercial.”

Growing crops inside means the producer can have seven to eight growing cycles a year, in a pest-free environment and with the ability to manipulate the chemical composition of the plant.

And by linking with the medical research facility, it’s possible to quickly evaluate the impact of changing the crop environment on the essential oils’ anti-cancer effects, says Marwa Jbara, research assistant at the Plant Factory.

“Herbal medicines have been used for generations, but the chemical composition is defined by local environmental conditions – by growing in a controlled environment we can produce very high value chemicals.”

The next step is to identify whether the essential oils affect normal human cells, and then whether they affect other types of cancers. “We need to identify which receptor pathways the compounds are working on, and then we can move to clinical trials and optimise the therapeutic window in which to use them,” explains Ms Jbara.

“Commercial use is still a long way off, but because Mantle Cell lymphoma is very aggressive and untreatable, anything which is genuinely useful will be pushed forward quite quickly, as there are no other options.”

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