News (from Edinburgh Research and Innovation)

Long term collaboration grows from seeds of a studentship

  • 30 July 2011
Long term collaboration grows from seeds of a studentship

A successful research collaboration with South Korean Unhwa Corporation to improve the production of life-saving drugs from tree cells that grew out of a studentship in 2006 is extended to 2016.

South Korean biotechnology company Unhwa Corporation is extending its successful collaboration with the University to use systems biology approaches to understand how plant cells synthesise particular compounds – with particular focus on enhancing production of the cancer drug paclitaxel (Taxol) from yew tree cells.

A diverse range of commercially important products are derived from plants, including medicines, pigments, insecticides and anti-microbials. However, as many of these products are chemically complex, synthesis can often be problematic and expensive. Culturing plant cells on an industrial scale brings further challenges, due to instabilities of the cell populations, poor growth rates and large variations in yield. 

Unhwa has addressed this issue by developing a platform technology to isolate and culture a particular sub-population of plant cells – known as cambial meristematic cells (CMCs) in the laboratory and then harvest the desired products from the media in which they are growing. These cells were thought to be a type of plant stem cell, which meant they should be immortal and capable of being cultured indefinitely. If they did have these unique properties, they should be a much more reliable and economic source of plant-derived products.

Unhwa wanted scientific proof to confirm that the methods they had developed to isolate the plant stem cells definitely worked. In other words, that the cells they were isolating had the signature characteristics and features of a plant stem cell.

The first plant type the company chose to focus on was the yew tree – the bark of which is the source of the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel. For that challenge, they needed the plant science expertise that a university such as Edinburgh has to offer.

In 2006, after a conference meeting with Professor Gary Loake from the University’s School of Biological Sciences, Unhwa agreed to sponsor a PhD student in Professor Loake’s research lab in the Institute of Molecular Plant Sciences, under the BBSRC CASE studentship programme.

This initial collaboration gave Unhwa access to expertise and equipment for high-throughput DNA sequencing, gene expression profiling and metabolic pathway analysis, as well as the computational expertise required to interpret and analyse the data that these techniques generate.

The research programme used a number of sophisticated DNA and RNA sequencing methods to analyse the genome of the plant stem cells, as well as biochemical and cell biological analysis. As a result, Professor Loake’s lab was able to generate a fingerprint of the genes and proteins being expressed by these cells, which confirmed their stem cell credentials. The team had proven that the method did indeed isolate genuine plant stem cells from yew trees and that these could be grown in routine culture to produce paclitaxel.

This information allowed the company to confirm and validate its methods – proving that the techniques it had developed did lead to the consistent isolation of plant stem cells that could be readily grown in culture in a reproducible manner.

Dr Young-Woo Jin, CEO of Unhwa Corporation, said: “The BBSRC CASE studentship programme helped us to initiate a research collaboration with the University of Edinburgh, enabling us to study cambial meristematic cells at the molecular level. We anticipate that substantial information acquired through this research will promote continuous student recruitment through the BBSRC CASE studentship programme and expand our collaboration effort.”

Under an expanded collaboration deal signed in June 2011, this successful partnership is now being extended until 2016. This will characterise these stem cell cultures further to understand the pathways that control the biosynthesis of paclitaxel, so that they can be optimised and manipulated to produce even more paclitaxel in a more efficient and environmentally sustainable way.

Professor Loake said: “That initial interaction between industry and the University via a sponsored studentship can be an ideal way to access expertise, techniques and state-of-the-art equipment which might not otherwise be available to an emerging biotech company. These relatively small-scale projects can deliver high-quality results that can seed further innovative research programmes.”


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