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House of X: The real-life science behind the X-Men’s medical gifts to humanity

We don’t have the flowers of Krakoa, so sometimes we have to make things happen ourselves.

In House of X #1, writer Jonathan Hickman introduced to us the X-Men’s benevolent (?) gift to mankind, three flowers from the living island Krakoa that can be made into near-miraculous, life-saving and extending wonder drugs. We get plenty of important medications from plants in the real world, too. Bioinformatics expert Mary Mangan returns to give us some examples.

Plant products can improve our health and happiness, above and beyond the nutrition we get from food crops. Some plants naturally give us highs, some calm us down, and some can treat disease. But we humans can utilize the machinery that plants have to make new and useful products, ourselves, using genetic modification technologies.

Here are some real-life examples of plants that can be used to deliver pharmaceutical benefits to humans as a result of genetic modification. The future is now. Roots, leaves, and seeds are already harnessed for making human drugs.

Marvel Comics

Elelyso (taliglucerase alfa)

Our bodies have to break down substances to rid our systems of waste. Some people have defective enzymes, however, which means that toxic levels of these byproducts can accumulate in their tissues. In  Gaucher disease, for example, a broken enzyme means that the liver, spleen, and other tissues can become clogged with a fatty compound that should normally be destroyed.

Scientists have been able to provide a replacement enzyme, and one of the methods used involves carrot cells. Giant vats of carrot cell cultures can make a functional enzyme, which can be given to Gaucher-affected patients intravenously, extending their lives for years.

Flu vaccine

Tobacco has a pretty bad reputation for human health, but it might be redeeming itself as a bioreactor to create products with major benefits. A number of projects are underway to see if tobacco leaves can be hijacked for good, like in Ebola treatments, anti-inflammatory drugs, and more.

But a quicker way to make a vaccine for flu, which affects so many people each year, could bring big, widespread benefits to all people. Large quantities, made faster and with fewer allergic reactions than egg-derived vaccines, would be a bona fide super-drug.

Cholera vaccine

Although cholera may not be something most Americans worry about today, it’s still a problem in many parts of the developing world. Sometimes it becomes an issue after a disaster situation, as we saw not long ago in Haiti. You might not have good refrigeration equipment, or ways to get medical personnel to places that need the administration of shots.

So if you could use the seeds of a plant as a stable storage mechanism, maybe you could treat more people.  That’s the idea behind the disgustingly-named MucoRice. Researchers put certain proteins from cholera into rice plants, so that the body can mount an immune response after a person eats it. You could quickly mix up a rice drink for people who might be in a cholera-affected area, to help them prevent or combat illness. Terrible name, great idea.

MucoRice growing in a pharmaceutical greenhouse, from nature.com

Putting the flower before the STEM?

Unlike in House of X, where Krakoa’s super-drugs are delivered immediately to the Marvel public, all of these real examples are carefully studied before they leave the lab (anything marketed as a “supplement,” sadly, has much looser regulations and very low standards).

First, the basic research steps and peer-reviewed publications let us understand the context and the framework for these drugs. If a drug leaves the research lab, its safety for human use is subject to review by the FDA, and possibly the USDA in the United States and most other countries, depending on its characteristics. If something makes it through all the regulatory hurdles, it still needs to pass clinical trials to prove its effectiveness:  phase 1-3 to get FDA approval, and phase 4 is monitoring and follow-up after wider release.

One has to wonder how the Marvel citizens can really know if their newfound miracle drugs are too good to be true, or even safe. The plot thickens.

AiPT! Science is co-presented by AiPT! Comics and the New York City Skeptics.

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