The Pentagon’s after a better way to strike back against infectious diseases and bio-threats. Now, a team at Texas A&M may have come up with a way to turn tobacco plants into vaccine-making machines.
Darpa, the military’s risk-taking research agency, is investing $40 million into the Texas Plant-Expressed Vaccine Consortium, which will test the tobacco-based method and then offer up 10 million doses of H1N1 vaccines. Once the process has been vetted, the researchers anticipate a scalability that could yield 100 million vaccine doses per month.
Plant-based vaccine production has been in the workings for years now, including the successful creation of edible bananas that protect against the Norwalk virus. Last summer, Darpa requested proposals for plant-based options that would rapidly yield protective antigens for the creation of potent vaccines. Tobacco is a particularly good option, because it’s cheap and grows quickly — yielding vaccines in weeks, rather than the several months required for the standard egg-based method that’s been used since the 1950s.
Darpa’s been funding fast-tracked medication production since 2005, when the agency launched their Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals (AMP) program. Although Darpa was already funding research into Avian Flu protection, they realized that H1N1 was a more pressing priority. “In response to the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, AMP’s plant-based platform redirected its rapid scale-up processes that were initially developed for avian influenza,” Darpa’s announcement states.
The Texas A&M consortium also received $21 million from Darpa for the creation of Project GreenVax, which will work towards the quick, plant-based production of a myriad of vaccines. Having the program in place would offer a method to mitigate newly emerging viruses before they turn into widespread pandemics. The project will be housed in a custom-built, 21-acre compound, which features a 145,000 square foot “biotherapeutic production facility” that uses mobile “pods” to grow the plants.
The plant-based vaccine production method works by isolating a specific antigen protein — one that triggers a human immune response — from the targeted virus. A gene from the protein is transferred to bacteria, which are then used to “infect” plant cells. The plants then start producing the exact protein that will be used for vaccinations. From first transfer to final extraction, the method takes around five weeks.
And the cheap, massively scalable strategy could also help those in developing countries, where vaccines are often too expensive or otherwise inaccessible.
It’s probably too late for Darpa’s swine-flu greenhouse to make a dent in H1N1 protection - assuming the plant pods work, they’ll still need to undergo FDA testing. The good news for Darpa-funded researchers is that the influenza outbreaks just keep coming: scientists are now warnin that if Avian flu teams up with H1N1, the result could be “a super nightmare for the whole world.”
By Katie Drummond, Wired
February 24, 2010