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Where once innovation was considered a luxury, it's becoming a necessity. A growing population and depleting resources are putting unprecedented demands on many industries to innovate and future-proof their products and operations – as well as our planet. Perhaps the most significant example in recent times is the COVID-induced increase in demand for pharmaceuticals and fast, forcing pharma to think and act differently.

The need to adopt a different approach to manufacturing medicines isn't new. The financial cost of producing pharmaceuticals is rising, stretching healthcare budgets ever further and making some medicines out of reach for poorer countries. The price to our planet is high too, with the pharmaceutical industry being a major player in consuming natural resources.

Could pharma crops be a cure-all?

However, change is afoot and conventional ways of making medicines are being complemented by pioneering technology with its roots in agriculture.

Indoor vertical farming is growing fast within the farming community thanks to its eco-credentials and potential to meet the demands of an increasing population. And the advantages of Agritech are being recognised in other sectors too, in particular the pharmaceutical industry.

The market potential for crops grown in vertical farms is thought to be around $252m. Yet food crops account for only $30-40m of that. The potential for crops grown for pharmaceutical purposes is said to stand at around $120m and growing by 10% every year. At the same time, medical cannabis represents $112m of the market potential and is increasing at a rate of 23% annually.

Already, one of the world's most high-tech indoor farms manufactures pharmaceutical medicines used to treat fibrotic diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, systemic sclerosis, and scleroderma. The large-scale automated hydroponic systems can grow more than 4m plants and produce over 300kg of recombinant protein pharmaceutical active ingredient each year. And all without human intervention.

Evidencing the commitment from both industries, last year, a leading UK vertical growing technology business partnered with a phytopharmaceutical development company to grow a crop used to produce a licenced medicine. The extract has a proven anti-viral effect on coughs and colds and is a fundamental ingredient in over-the-counter drugs designed for respiratory conditions. Using soil-free, hydroponic production will enable its year-round supply. And because the project will use state-of-the-art automated hardware and software technologies, human interaction is minimised, production is sustainable and medicine-grade hygiene is guaranteed.

The R&D defining the future for pharma

The R&D opportunities presented by adding Agritech to the pharmaceutical industry's arsenal appear endless. From plant-based insulin derived from safflower to genetically modified potato crops containing hepatitis B vaccine, growing and harvesting next-generation crops for use in medicine makes sense for our planet and people: higher yields, faster growth plus lower-cost production and planet-friendly. It's believed just 250 acres of genetically modified potato crop could produce sufficient vaccine to protect the entire south-east Asia population for a year.

Biomanufacturing vaccines is a focus for R&D in biotech and genetically modified crops. And genetically modified grains, vegetables and fruits have already played a significant role in their development. Did you know engineered tobacco plants are used extensively to produce an anti-lymphoma vaccine that helps destroy cancerous cells?

With this in mind, could pharma crops overtake conventional methods of manufacturing medicines? Of course, there's a lot more R&D needed before it becomes a reality, but plenty of opportunities it seems.

If you're solving problems, finding solutions, or developing products, services, or processes for your industry, RIFT can help you claim R&D Tax Credits to cover the cost.

Please speak to us for help identifying historic qualifying activity and getting the credit for it. Call 01233 653008.