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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 ( "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.

NuCycle Inc. 1 Deer Park Drive, Monmouth Junction

08852; 732-438-0900; fax, 732-438-1209. Burt Ensley, CEO. E-mail:

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