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Looking at broad uses of 'transgenic' technology

Monday, November 20, 2000

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

A local company is working with North Carolina State University scientists to add genes to tobacco plants that would help them defend themselves from fungal and bacterial attack.

Richard Ekstrom is president of Demegen Inc. of Braddock Hills. The company is using tobacco plants, into which it inserts useful genes from other species, as it researches ways to make products ranging from healthier plants to pharmaceuticals. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

But Richard Ekstrom emphasizes that his company, Demegen Inc., in Braddock Hills, has much broader interests in this "transgenic" technology.

By identifying useful genes and transferring them from one plant species to another, Demegen hopes to not only develop healthier plants, but also more nutritious vegetables, fruits and grains and a means of producing pharmaceuticals in plants.

Demegen is working with North Carolina State scientists to test its antifungal and antibacterial DNA in tobacco, with the intent of introducing it to other plants. Transferring the genes to other plants, such as watermelons, might allow farmers to reduce or eliminate the use of fungicides on their fields. Resistance to bacterial infections might also protect foods after harvest, preventing rot in potatoes, for instance.

The company also is developing transgenic technology that would boost the protein content of foods. In the United States, such a technology would primarily be used to improve animal feed, Ekstrom said, but could have a more significant impact in developing nations by boosting the protein content of foodstuffs.

Most vegetables have relatively low levels of protein, which is a problem for people who subsist on a limited diet.

At Tuskegee University, for instance, scientists are working with Demegen to boost the protein content of sweet potatoes.

The company has licensed its crop protection and nutritional enhancement technologies to Dow Agrosciences Inc.

Demegen also has found proteins that are potential pharmaceuticals and could prove useful in treating prostate cancers, promoting wound healing and treating respiratory infections in cystic fibrosis patients.

Clinical trials for some of these proteins are underway at the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University. Transgenic plants are a possible means of producing these proteins, if the clinical tests are successful.



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