In 1990, fresh from Cornell University's chemical engineeringdepartment, Bobby Bringi and Christopher Prince harnessedtheir expertise in plant cell culture to form Phyton CatalyticInc. and set their sights on developing and commercializingplant-derived compounds.

The co-founders didn't have to look far for a lead compound topursue. There was clearly a huge demand to uncover a methodto produce large quantities of the anti-cancer drug taxol,derived from tissue of the Pacific yew tree. Phyton met part ofthe challenge in its founding year, becoming the first companyto product taxol in tissue culture.

The Ithaca, N.Y., company is now scaling up for taxolproduction. Bringi, now a vice president, said he expects Phytonto be in commercial production of taxol within three to fiveyears.

According to Bringi, Phyton works both sides of the productioncycle -- growing the cells and scale-up. "We are not an R&Dboutique; we are very involved in integrated processdevelopment," he said.

Phyton, which holds an exclusive license from the U.S.Department of Agriculture on a patent for the taxol productionprocess, entered into a collaborative partnership last Novemberwith Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) to develop a plant cell tissueculture process. BMS has an exclusive contract to supply taxolto the National Institutes of Health for research.

"Since there was no real commercial blockbuster product madeby plant cell culture, we convinced BMS that we could do it,"Bringi said. He did not disclose terms of the BMS deal, but saidthat it was renewable under the agreement.

Phyton initially started with and still relies on fund-ing fromprivate financing, corporate and government contracts. Itshared a $1.27 million grant from the National Cancer Institutein October 1991 as part of a consortium with CornellUniversity, Hauser Chemical

Research Inc., the USDA's Agricultural Research Service andColorado State University to study taxol.

The 30-employee company has filed several patentapplications for taxol production and has one other productunder development using its plant cell culture techniques.Bringi would not disclose details on the product.

Phyton's core technology provides opportunities for large-scaleproduction of a rare compound and protection from damagecaused by overharvesting valuable natural supplies.

"Clearly there's a global awareness that the plant kingdomremains a treasure, and people are now going back to theforests with sophisticated chemical tools to screen those plantswith compounds that have medicinal value," Bringi said.

-- Michelle Slade Associate Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.