Veggie Vaccines: Putting Tobacco to Good Use

In the event of wide-spread influenza pandemic a vaccine would need to be produced and distributed in the quickest time possible. The standard means of developing vaccines involves chicken eggs and could take up to nine months for a vaccine to become available. But this week scientists have managed to produce 10 million doses of a plant-based H1N1 vaccine within just a month.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) have been pursuing vegetable-based vaccine research, called Blue Angel, since 2005. The current process would require nearly one billion chicken eggs to provide for the US.

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Dr. Alan Magill, DARPA program manager, said in an official statement “we’re looking at plant-based solutions to vaccine production as a more rapid an efficient alternative to the standard egg-based technologies, and the research is very promising.” The agency hopes that veggie-based vaccines will be strong enough to battle flu with just one dose – compared to the multi-dose vaccines currently used.

Plant-based vaccines are developed using ‘virus-like particles’. These particles are non-infectious and help produce anti-viral antibodies. They are produced by synthesizing the DNA of the flu virus, combining it with bacteria, and then soaking plants with the mix. The plants start producing the flu-fighting particles within minutes. Protein extracts from the plants then become the basis for a vaccine.

Tobacco is the most popular plant for this process as it grows relatively fast; with tobacco a vaccine could be produced in a matter of weeks. Potentially, 100 million vaccines could be produced a month.

So government is funding the cultivation of tobacco? Medicago – a firm funded by DARPA – held $21 million worth of funding from the pentagon.

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Image Source: Tim Douglas/Flickr