Tobacco – the next vaccine factory?

    An indoor tobacco farm is under construction in Newark, Delaware. Only these plants don’t carry nicotine, and they aren’t meant to make cigarettes.

    An indoor tobacco farm is under construction in Newark, Delaware. Only these plants don’t carry nicotine, and they aren’t meant to make cigarettes. These plants could be the solution to a world-wide influenza pandemic, or so the company thinks. WHYY’s health and science reporter Kerry Grens paid a visit.

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    Scientist Brian Green closes a plexiglass door on a box the size of a dorm room refrigerator. It’s a vacuum chamber. Inside it, about 50 little green plants are dunked upside down in a plastic bucket of clear liquid. Green flips a switch.

    Bubbles form on the outside of the plants and float to the surface, as the vacuum pulls the air from the leaves.

    Green: So you’re removing air from the intercellular space and then when the vacuum breaks it can pull the liquid in … You’ll be able to see. See the liquid being pulled in?

    The leaves suck back in to replace the air they’ve lost, but instead of air they take in the surrounding liquid. And in that liquid is molecular machinery that will manufacture a vaccine within the plants’ leaves. In a room down the hall from the vacuum chamber are racks of bright green tobacco plants, about as tall as a pack of cigarettes.

    Yusibov: We’re standing in the indoor facility where we grow the plants…If you look at the plants, they’re great machines to make proteins.

    That’s Vidadi Yusibov, the executive director of the Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biotechnology in Delaware. He explains that the plant acts like a little factory for making proteins, and those proteins are extracted and turned into a vaccine.

    Yusibov: At this point the closest one is really the influenza.

    He’s referring to a pandemic influenza vaccine. Next year, the company expects to test it on humans. Yusibov says tobacco is a good alternative to traditional egg-based vaccines because of how quickly manufacturers would be able to go from identifying a flu strain to bottling up a vaccine.

    Yusibov: Imagine the scenario when you come to us and say here’s my gene and I want a product or I want a protein out of it. And we perhaps we will be able to get back to you in no more than a two month period with your product in a tube.

    That can be weeks to months faster than traditional production. So far there are no plant-based vaccines on the market. Charles Arntzen is a professor at Arizona State University, and a pioneer in this field. He says the speed of plant-made vaccines opens up a new opportunity in medicine — personalized vaccines.

    Arntzen: No one’s even gotten close to contemplating a patient-specific vaccine. All of a sudden with the new technology in the last half a dozen years now it’s possible to drop these genes into a tobacco plant and within 6 weeks you can go from biopsy to vial of vaccine.

    That’s precisely what the pharmaceutical company Bayer is trying. It’s testing a personalized tobacco-based vaccine to treat non-Hodgkins lymphoma. But speed and cheaper production costs don’t make a vaccine marketable. Christine Layton is a public health researcher at RTI international. She says the profits on vaccines are very slim because people only get them a few times.

    Layton: Whereas another kind of pharmaceutical product, say a drug for a chronic illness, is going to be something the consumer is going to be paying for over a continued period of time.

    Still, Arntzen and the scientists at Fraunhofer are optimistic tobacco will eventually be the next great vaccine producer. And they have the confidence of others. This year, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave Fraunhofer nearly nine million dollars to make it happen.

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