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Getting a flu vaccine from tobacco plants

February 25, 2010 |  6:13 pm

Tobacco plant Here's an idea: Rehabilitate the tobacco plant by using it to make flu vaccine. (This may sound like a double-whammy nightmare for anyone who believes that vaccines are killing us all and GMOs are killing us all, but let's put that aside and examine what the scientists are doing, and why.)

First off, the rationale: Production of flu vaccine is rooted in old technology. You need fertile chicken eggs, millions of them, for growing the flu virus before you kill it and turn it into vaccine. That's one of the reasons it took so long to prepare a vaccine for the new variant of H1N1 flu that caused a pandemic this year and why health officials have to decide many months in advance what strains of flu virus will be the source of the next season's flu shot. To speed up the process, various companies and research groups have developed/are developing new virus-growing systems that use mammal cells or insect cells. 

So, hey, why not tobacco plants? A consortium of scientists at Texas A&M and elsewhere launched Project GreenVax to try it -- they say it could create vaccine far more quickly and efficiently than the eggs.

A nice article in the Wall Street Journal explains a bit of the technology and also mentions other efforts to manufacture vaccines of various stripes in plants. (The image at the left was taken at the facility of a California company that was using tobacco plants to try to manufacture a cancer vaccine.)

According to the Wall Street Journal article, the procedure goes like this: First you insert a flu-virus gene into a bacterium -- the gene in question directs formation of a protein that our immune systems recognize and launch a response to when we get infected by flu.

Next, you infect the tobacco plant with the bacterium. Inside the plant, the protein is produced in large quantities.

The tobacco leaves are chopped and crushed and the protein extracted -- it is then used to create the  vaccine. The Department of Defense is giving $40 million toward the GreenVax project (don't you love the name?) and a production plant is slated for construction in Bryan, Texas. The technology should in principle work for any flu vaccine -- the Wall Street Journal, for example, mentions Medicago Inc. of Quebec City, which has been working on a tobacco-grown vaccine for the avian H5N1 flu.

You can watch a video of the kind of technology being used to make vaccines in plants at the website for the Fraunhofer USA Center for Molecular Biotechnology in Newark, Del.

-- Rosie Mestel 

Photo: Tobacco plants at a Vacaville, Calif.-based company that tried to manufacture a cancer vaccine. Now scientists in Texas are working on making a flu vaccine in tobacco. Credit: Anne Dowie / For The Times