August 25, 2017 |

Friday Think: The curious process of turning plants into vaccine “factories”

Scientists discovered a “cheap, easy, and quick” way to make polio vaccines using plant leaves.
A large tobacco plant in bloom.
A potential lifesaving discovery involves “hijacking” tobacco plants. Photo: PATH.

Scientists may have figured out a new way to make vaccines. And they used a cousin of the tobacco plant to do it.

By using the genetic code for the outer surface of poliovirus, scientists at the John Innes Centre, Britain, grew a nearly identical imposter virus called VLP (short for virus-like particle). The VLP still works like a live vaccine by exposing an immune system to the infection, but without the infection-causing properties.

James Gallagher, a health and science reporter at BBC News, does a wonderful job detailing this process in “Plants ‘hijacked’ to make polio vaccine.” Here’s an excerpt:

The scientists hijacked a relative of the tobacco plant’s metabolism to turn its leaves into polio-vaccine ‘factories.’ First, they needed to create new instructions for the plant to follow.

The plants I know don’t typically follow instructions, and if they did, they’d be on an off-Broadway stage looking for their next meal (but that’s another story). What Gallagher is referring to is the genetic code for the outer surface of poliovirus, which the plant gets from the soil. Gallagher’s article continues:

The starting material was the genetic code for making the outer surface of poliovirus. It was enhanced by combining it with material from viruses that naturally infect plants.

The new instructions were then put into soil bacteria, which were used to infect tobacco.

The infection took hold, the plants read the genetic instructions, and started making the virus-like particles.

Infected leaves were mixed with water, blended, and the polio vaccine was extracted.

This discovery is exciting, and some scientists say the VLP technology holds great promise to develop vaccines against polio as well as other viruses, the winter flu, and potentially address infectious disease outbreaks.

Prof. George Lomonossoff, from the John Innes Centre, told BBC News:

“In an experiment with a Canadian company, they showed you could actually identify a new strain of virus and produce a candidate vaccine in three to four weeks.”

“It has potential for making vaccines against emerging epidemics, of course recently we had Zika and prior to that we had Ebola.”

For more detail, read the full article, “Plants ‘hijacked’ to make polio vaccine.” on BBC News.

Friday Think is an occasional series on PATH blog.

During the week we scour the news for the hottest stories on innovation. Our feature, Friday Think, highlights one we’ve found particularly fascinating.

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  • Portrait of Tracy Romoser. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.
    Tracy Romoser was formerly a communications officer and the blog editor at PATH.