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Author: Barbara Fox. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January
19, 2000. All rights reserved.
NuCycle: Plants As a Factory
Early in his career, Burt Ensley helped launch Amgen,
which has grown to be one of the most successful biotech start-ups
ever. Then he started Phytotech, based on plants that could draw
minerals out of the soil, but that company went bankrupt.
Now he has a new company at Deer Park Drive. With NuCycle Therapy
Inc., he is using plants to draw minerals out of the soil. This time
he is taking up the good minerals, specifically selenium and chromium,
to make mineral supplements that are plant-based and
not chemically made. Next he hopes to work with iron, zinc, manganese,
and copper to develop a mineral-rich product with vitamins.
And he is going one step further, bioengineering some of these plants
to manufacture helpful mineral amino acids. Ensley even has a hope
that he can prevent cancer.
"We know that at least one amino acid, methylselenocysteine (MSC)
is an anticarcinogen. We are using plants as a factory," says
Ensley, "trying to manipulate plants to take up selenium and
it into MSC."
NuCycle has small business grants from the National Cancer Institute
to study the anti-cancer characteristics of such selenium-based plant
supplements. It is two-thirds finished the Phase I "proof of
studies, for which it has received $100,000, and by the middle of
this year will begin Phase II funding for $600,000. Tom Leustek, an
associate professor at Rutgers’ Cook College, together with a
from Northern Arizona University, are culturing the modified plants,
and Ensley and Alexander Baltovsky of NuCycle are analyzing the
The plants are being grown in quantities by a South Jersey-based
"Burt has a genetically engineered plant that absorbs both the
cysteine and the selenium," says Ron Unterman, Ensley’s former
employer at Envirogen, a publicly held bioremediation company on
Road (http://www.envirogen.com). "He has created a plant with a
potentially interesting cancer
The hypothesis: A gene from one plant, a weed called astragalus, has
an enzyme that can convert selenium into MSC. Theoretically the MSC
from astragalus could be given to a cancer patient. But sick people
should not be ingesting anything made out of a weed, a weed with a
mysterious genealogy, a weed that may be toxic. Better for the dose
to be given in a plant that is very familiar, one with a long genetic
history, one that people have been eating for thousands of years.
Indian mustard is the plant Ensley has chosen to use. Mustard is an
everyday food and patients with an allergy to mustard will be well
aware of a potential adverse reaction.
Needed: an Indian mustard plant that can biosynthesize cysteine and
methionine and produce MSC. Procedure: take a shipment of one million
freeze-dried agrobacteria (developed for this purpose, cost: $35),
re-suspend the bacteria in sterile growth media, let them grow, and
add the all-important "conversion" gene from the astragalus
weed. Dip the mustard flowers in the solution of bacteria so the genes
get transferred into the genes of the flowers. What do you get?
(MSC). Or so Ensley hopes.
Fond hopes were what founded Amgen, back when Ensley was one of just
six employees. Amgen grew profitable with epogen, which solves the
problem of anemia for kidney dialysis patients, and with neupogen,
which is useful for chemotherapy.
Ensley grew up in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where his mother was a
editor and his father managed a clothing store. He met his future
wife, Carolyn, at the University of New Mexico; they have two teenaged
daughters. He graduated in 1974, and earned a PhD from the University
of Georgia. After 10 years at Amgen he worked at Envirogen from 1989
to 1992. In 1993 he founded Phytotech. Last year Phytotech filed for
Chapter 11 bankruptcy and sold the name, contracts, and rights to
its bioremediation technology to Edenspace Systems in Reston,
Ensley reformatted the company as NuCycle.
The company gained $340,000 from the sale of Phytotech’s state tax
losses and received a sum of money for the sale of the remediation
company, including the name Phytotech. Ensley is negotiating for
in equity financing, to be delivered when Chapter 11 proceedings are
Why not just make MSC using standard chemical methods? Natural sources
are often better, says Ensley, in terms of how well they are absorbed
by the body. Because they are plant-based, as opposed to being made
with yeast and other non-vegetarian methods, they often have fewer
contaminants. "Also, the quantity and quality of our minerals
are easily and consistently measurable."
Ensley admits to legitimate concerns about genetic manipulation,
for the purpose of helping farmers or feeding the world. "But,
one, when you balance the benefits against risk — this would
help prevent or reduce the risk of cancer. We are using the plant
to help prevent something that is one of the greatest scourges to
the human race."
"Two, it is unlikely to be planted on a large number of acres,
maybe 100 acres at most and perhaps all inside of greenhouses.
"Three, because it is a single gene, we have a high degree of
certainty in knowing what traits we are carrying over."
Often cited by Christians is the promise "If you have as much
faith as a grain of mustard seed, you can move mountains." Burt
Ensley may not be moving any mountains, but his tiny mustard seeds
might, just might, have the strength to destroy cancer cells.
08852; 732-438-0900; fax, 732-438-1209. Burt Ensley, CEO. E-mail:
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