Franz von Nussbaum

From Patients to Plants

Exploring the Common Ground Between Pharmaceutical and Agricultural Life Sciences

About a year ago, I made a career shift from pharmaceuticals to agriculture at Bayer. From the beginning, I was excited by the idea of exchanging knowledge with other scientists at Crop Science, while exploring the common ground between pharmaceutical and agricultural life sciences. My goal was to contribute to agricultural innovations that are less toxic for humans and beneficial insects and, therefore, more sustainable for a healthy planet – a sort of ‘Agriculture 4.0’ grounded in a deeper understanding of biology and chemistry.

From an outsider’s perspective, pharma and agro seem quite different. However, both aim to protect, nurture and better their respective ‘subject’ – people or plants. Pharma is supporting ‘human doctors’ whereas agro is about ‘plant doctors’ a.k.a. farmers. If you think about it, these disciplines have a lot of similar goals. Scientists in both fields are committed to solving some of the most pressing challenges we face today, like how to treat devastating diseases in patients and plants, how to ensure that we can feed all people on our planet, and how to use modern technology for more effective use of our natural resources.

Franz von Nussbaum at the Research Site in Lyon, France (CRLD)
Franz von Nussbaum at the Research Site in Lyon, France (CRLD)
Franz von Nussbaum,
Disease Control Chemistry at Bayer

Today, both industries face challenging issues with how society perceives them. With agricultural innovation, we’re only just beginning to broadly articulate its benefits to the world. Critics are often louder when it comes to agro than when talking about pharma. As an example, in response to my career change, a friend said, ‘you used to help cancer patients, why are you now killing bees?’ But ‘killing bees’ is the opposite of what I do; those of us in agriculture have a keen appreciation for the vital work of pollinators. In fact, our goal is to make worldwide agriculture better than it is today. Modern agriculture has a clear mission to produce food with fewer resources in the interest of a healthy planet. For me, this means a more sustainable, less toxic and more selective approach to agricultural challenges.

So how did I get here? As a young chemist in Munich (LMU) and in New York (Columbia), I learned a great deal from natural products, which are natural chemical compounds found in fungi, plants and even marine organisms such as sponges. The study of natural products from more remote places can open the door to new ideas in biology, pharmacology and agriculture. They can be the basis of new therapies against cancers or bacterial infections for humans, or they can lead the way to treatments for fungal infections in plants. At Bayer, we investigate natural products and their chemical derivatives to find new treatments for plants.

Franz von Nussbaum at a Soybean Field-Tour, Brasil 2017
Franz von Nussbaum at a Soybean Field-Tour, Brasil 2017
At a Soybean Field-Tour, Brasil 2017

My personal pharma expedition with Bayer covered antibacterials, cardiology, and oncology in Leverkusen, Wuppertal and Berlin. As a medicinal chemist, I was not only working in the lab discovering new molecules, but I was also interacting with many other disciplines. Often, medicinal chemists focus more on biology than chemistry. Chemistry is their tool, but influencing biology is their goal. ‘Surfing’ within the biological space with chemical tools has always excited me about my jobs in both pharma and in agro.

Comparing the two life sciences, pharma has benefited greatly from advancements in genetics, in biology and in medicinal chemistry. We have a good understanding of how drugs reach their molecular targets in cells, how they are distributed and degraded within the body and how they ultimately address disease pathology at the biological level. This makes pharma a very interdisciplinary field, in which drugs are characteristically produced based on a strong understanding of the biology, chemistry and genetics at play. However, one big challenge for pharmacological researchers is the time it takes for a developed compound to make it from the lab to the point where it’s ready to be given to the intended patient. This can easily take more than a decade.

On the contrary, in agriculture, the ‘patient’ is the plant, which is easily accessible in the greenhouse next door on our research campus in Lyon or in Monheim. Scientists can test their promising compounds directly with the ‘plant patient’ much sooner in this discipline, making empirical learning cycles encouragingly fast.

One challenge for agricultural scientists is that we must consider an entire ‘zoo’ of target organisms (pests, fungi and weeds) to control while also protecting important, non-target organisms like beneficial insects, animals, plants etc. In contrast, in pharma, we are often focused on taking care of ‘just one’ species – the human being.

When it comes to the complex biology behind plant diseases and human diseases, there is often more overlap on a scientific level than you might think. For example, we might be able to kill cancer cells with the same biological strategy we’d use to keep fungi under control and vice versa. Understanding this strategy on a biological and molecular level allows us to come up with new chemical solutions that are highly selective for plant pathogens but also non-toxic for humans and beneficial species such as bees.

Agro and pharma can learn a lot from each other. When we bring both worlds together by starting new agro projects based on a deeper understanding of biology on a molecular level and combine this with fast empirical learning cycles with our ‘plant patients’ in the greenhouse, we have a greater chance of developing a new generation of more sustainable, less toxic, more selective agrochemicals. This goal of building a new ‘Agriculture 4.0’ together with my colleagues in Crop Science is what excites me every day when I go to work in Lyon and Monheim!

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