Called recombinant proteins, they are used extensively in the pharmaceutical, food and paper-processing industries. Until now, the vast majority of these proteins were derived from animal organisms.

The recombinant proteins produced in sugarcane plants are expected to be safer and less expensive to produce, according to the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station scientist who developed the process.

"By producing these recombinant proteins in sugarcane plants, we reduce the cost of production, increase the world's capacity to produce these proteins, and we virtually eliminate the danger of transmitting pathogens from animals to humans," said Dr. Erik Mirkov, a virologist and molecular biologist at the Texas A&M University System Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.

Mirkov and Texas A&M currently have seven patents, either issued or pending, for the process he developed to use sugarcane as a bio-factory for recombinant proteins.

In the license agreement, ECOR acquires exclusive rights to commercialize the Texas A&M patents in the field of bio-processing. ECOR's subsidiary, proCANE LLC, will produce the sugarcane-derived, high-value proteins.

Recombinant proteins are produced by splicing a gene, or a combination of genes, into an organism to induce that organism to produce the desired proteins.

Switching from animals to plants as the protein factory has been the focus of Mirkov's research for years, research supported to a great extent by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers, Inc.

To produce the proteins in sugarcane, the genes are introduced at the cellular level to sugarcane callus, thereby transforming the transgenic cane to produce both sugar and the high-value proteins in the cane's stems.

Mirkov's research showed that producing and recovering proteins from sugarcane are scientifically and economically feasible.

Millions of diabetics use a life-saving recombinant protein, insulin, every day. And over 300 therapeutic proteins are currently in various stages of research and clinical trials for approval to one day treat ailments ranging from cancer to cystic fibrosis.

ProCANE's chief operating officer, Joseph Jilka, said the company's current focus is on raising sufficient start-up funds and assembling a research and development staff to collaborate with Texas A&M scientists in College Station.

Jilka said he expects to have the new recombinant protein products on the market within four years.

"In the future we expect transgenic plants to be the method of choice for the production of low-cost, high-volume industrial-type proteins," he said.

ECOR's president and CEO, Michael A. Zito, said, "ECOR is focused on becoming a major player in the commercialization and delivery of proteins that help lengthen people's lives. By working with strategic partners like Texas A&M University, we feel a sense of pride in helping promote improvements in human health and healthcare."

Rod Santa Ana III is a writer for Texas A&M University.

e-mail: r-santaana@tamu.edu