What would it be like if we no longer had to travel far for certain medicinal plants, cut down rainforests, and carry out time-consuming searches? We interviewed Dr. Rafael Jordan about a project that can save lives, protect the environment, and make medical care affordable for everyone. In this publication you can read why medicinal plants cannot simply grow in every greenhouse and how closely botany and microintegration belong together in this case.
RealIZM: Can you give me a short walk through the most important parts of your work?
Rafael Jordan: I have to start with history here. Solid state lighting started around 15, 20 years ago. Most of the research and development is done, this market is going down, and so companies are looking for niches. Several small and medium enterprises found niches in growing plants in small cabins for domestic use or in big vertical farms for industrialization.
In Germany, this is done by around a hundred enterprises, so it’s again a saturated market. What we focus on now is plant growth for medical and pharmaceutical use. We need to find out what a plant needs to grow in a synthetic environment, still producing the medicinal drugs.
We try to find a procedure to get feedback from the plant. What is the best environment? And afterwards we can control the environment to allow a medicinal plant to grow steadily and efficiently.
RealIZM: What exactly are medicinal plants?
Rafael Jordan: It starts very simply with peppermint. More challenging is the investigation of arnica. It helps for open wounds and it is antiseptic. And most challenging will be plants from the rainforests that produce cytostatic drugs against cancer.
RealIZM: So this is your recent project?
Rafael Jordan: Actually, it is a vision of mine frommore than three years ago. So I started by writing a patent that is now on the table. At Fraunhofer, our draft related to this topic has already been accepted.
RealIZM: Will you start right now?
Rafael Jordan: Well, not immediately. We will have to write the full proposal. After you get it granted, you can get started. I think it might take a little while, we are aiming for September for the FPP. Preparation is ongoing!
RealIZM: Apart from writing a proposal: How does the preparation for the project look?
Rafael Jordan: Preparation means we meet and look for the best plants. We have to decide which plants we cannot take because we are not able to fulfill their requirements, but, on the other hand, it needs to be something so special that it cannot be done by anybody in a greenhouse.
RealIZM: What is the difference between your work and a normal greenhouse?
Rafael Jordan: First it has to be explained how complicated the systems are. We have already decided to test arnica within the project. If you look for normal arnica, which is growing and is harvested everywhere, you usually have a lot of trouble with pesticides and pollution and you will have different amounts of drug concentration in the plants depending on region and season. So you plant it in a normal greenhouse. The plants may look great: big, strong perfect yellow color – but they yield no drug at all.
You must really understand the story behind it and you know now, after years of work with arnica, that you need some kind of stress. The drug we use medicinally is a poison that the plant uses against other plants or animals. In a greenhouse, there is no stress, which means no poison and this means no drug for us. We work on applying the right amount of stress. If you put too much stress on the plant, the plant will be small. We can see in nature: Plants in nature are smaller than the ones in the greenhouse – but they have a drug the others don’t. You have to find the balance.
RealIZM: Which parameters are also important apart from stress?
There are so many parameters. There are, for example, obvious parameters like light, humidity, nutrient solution, and temperature. But plants are so profound. In a very small concentration they vaporize organic components. It tells the plant that there are other plants growing close. If the plants come too close, they have to compete for space, nutrients, sunlight, and more. To secure the area around them, they start producing “poison” when they detect organic components from other plants. Another example is the movement of the roots. They can get the ‘impression’ that there is a worm that could bite their roots, so the plants start to produce the poison.
Only if you understand the whole, profound scenario in and around a plant can you build a real, innovative, efficient greenhouse to harvest the complicated organic components we need.
RealIZM: Do we ‘need’ them?
Rafael Jordan: Yes, we really do need them. In pharmacy as well as in cosmetics, 25% of all components are harvested from nature, so this is something really important and I am enthusiastic to be a part of it and to be working on it.
RealIZM: You sound not only enthusiastic but also very positive. Is there any reason why the project might not work?
Rafael Jordan: There are a lot of challenges that we may not solve. There is the persistent question of whether we have the complete data to fulfill the requirements of the plants. The organic components that are only in the concentration of pheromones for example: I do not think we can monitor them in situ. There are some things we will never achieve in a greenhouse but we still need to understand them and maybe work around them.
RealIZM: Can you describe the setting you will work in?
Rafael Jordan: I think we will involve confirmable electronics. We will have illumination panels with sensors and cameras inside. That is important because you let the plants grow in stacks, where you only have ten to fifteen centimeters. We do not have space for a big illumination system or for a heavy camera system. But a bottom layer made with water resistant electronics will also be feasible. This can be used to stress the roots controlled by moderate heat, different wave lengths, and vibrations.
The partner institutes will do most of the biological work. They will first only investigate the plants and they do nothing but understand the plant: how it grows and lives under normal conditions. Then we also have another institute involved that already has some experience manipulating the plants.
The idea is that we look for components we think we need. The others start with investigating plants and later develop a setup we can put the medicinal plant in. This will be tested and then integrated into the panel we would like to have and then we can have a functioning illumination or greenhouse system.
RealIZM: You basically try to fake nature right? Is there any ethical problem?
Rafael Jordan: Well, there are people who go a step beyond being vegan and who do not want to kill plants, but I think that this is a minority. So I don’t have any trouble with having the plants in there, even if we know that they have something like a memory and can feel stress. We have to focus on the positive aspects of the projects, for example prohibiting wild harvesting, which is going on right now. Walking through the grasslands in Austria, there is no wild arnica anymore, because it is an easy way to make some euros by selling it. In addition, we can actually save lives. This is my very personal motive for the project, because I have needed it in the past. My wife had cancer and needed the extract from a very special orchid that can only be found in the rain forest. You would have to cut down hundreds of square meters in order to find four or five plants, but you need about hundred to get the dose for one person. So the ethical question might also go in the other direction, by asking if it is justifiable not to use this option, knowing that we could save lives, but not doing so.
RealIZM: So the keyword “playing God” is not an issue for you?
Rafael Jordan: I think that this is more of a problem in genetics, because that is about changing and manipulating a given code. Our main motivation is just to get the right and efficient amount of drugs for everybody. My vision is to get drugs in sufficient amounts and therefore an affordableprice, because medication should not be a privilege.
RealIZM: Any predictions when you will be finished? If you ever will…
Rafael Jordan: I think that the whole process will go on for the next 15 to 20 years.We need thousands of plants and we may find a way to make it easier to get the information about the plant’s needs. In three years we will hopefully know about up to five plants. It is a long way.
RealIZM: Is your technology also usable for applications other than the medical industry? Like farming or general agriculture?
Rafael Jordan: Well, you know that the European funding program is always seven years. Horizon 2020 is ending and the next one is Horizon Europe. You have to write a road map for seven years of what has to be in a funding scheme. For illustration, about 80 percent is for the farming industry, in-house farming, and vertical farming addressed by all those start-ups. It’s already here and it’s almost overkill for normal farming, which is so much easier. For them it is not so interesting if there is the right composition of proteins inside the plant. It is about the right taste and color and should be free of poisons.
Horizon Europe ends in 2027; the projects can run for four years and then we are in 2031. It cannot still be about indoor illumination for plant growth – that is not enough. You have to look for new things, not for things which are already on the table.
RealIZM: If you breed the plants inside, would they be able to survive outside?
Rafael Jordan: That is very hard to say, because it is not really our vision. Again, a personal example: I was eleven when I did my first test with plants. I mixed up different ions I watered the plants with and gave a plant with a bottle of that mixture to a friend. She was amazed how fast and big the plant grew, until she ran out of that mixture, because the plant died within few days. I had made this plant “addicted” to these synthetic conditions.
I don’t know what will happen if we then take the arnica and put it outside. We will not change the genetics. Maybe this plant will die, maybe the seeds will grow normally, we do not know…
RealIZM: So it is only about the function as a medical drug?
Rafael Jordan: Yes.That’s the requirement, because the pharmaceuticals industry has too much trouble with pollution for example. The plants have always different concentration of the drug, or contain pollutants. The pharmaceuticals industry asked us to produce the plants, and therefore the drugs, as purely as possible.
RealIZM: Are there any competitors on the market?
Rafael Jordan: There are others doing research on medicinal plants, but not as systematically and detailed as we will do. While they can, for example, test how light-on versus light-off influences the plants, we have a mixture of thousands of combinations or wavelengths. We can do raman spectroscopy or liquid high-pressure chromatography and so much more to look if the composition has changed or not
RealIZM: What role does microelectronics play in this?
Rafael Jordan: As I mentioned before, you may use it with bulky systems, too. But often they need too much space and energy and they are very expensive. The role of IZM and microintegration is to have it on a thin film to make a compression molding, lamination, or to do high pressure thermoforming of a panel to have it in a thin layer with a lot of sensors and actuators already integrated. It also must be very robust because close to a plant you do not only have humidity, but also temperature and fermentation gas, which is very corrosive. The cleaning processes to remove algae and other residues are also harsh. So IZM has to build panels that are stable against all those environmental aspects.
And of course we understand the semiconductors, the LEDs; we know how to run smartphone camera systems, for example, in a way that we get all the information we need. That’s what we can do.
This interview was conducted by Marieke Lienert from Fraunhofer IZM Marketing & Business Development department.
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