Vaccine Production Breakthrough at UC Davis

US - A young team of scientists at UC Davis has used tobacco instead of eggs used to quickly make vaccines at lower cost. Their first target is Newcastle disease.
calendar icon 9 June 2010
clock icon 4 minute read

An award-winning venture by a University of California (UC) Davis student team could turn a public health pariah into a potential hero, using tobacco plants to develop vaccines in weeks instead of months, accordining to Evansville Courier & Press.

The team, Inserogen, won the $15,000 grand prize at the Big Bang business plan competition at the UC, Davis, with its proposal to produce vaccines at a fraction of the cost – and time – of conventional methods.

The UC Davis team, which dubbed its product SwiftVax, hopes to capitalise on a global vaccine market it pegs at more than $30 billion and growing.

Members envision opening new markets for veterinary and human vaccines with the less costly, more flexible technology.

Their first target is Newcastle disease, a contagious viral disease that decreases egg production in poultry and can cause flu-like symptoms in humans.

Lucas Arzola, 24, the team's leader and a third-year doctoral student in chemical engineering at UC Davis, explained: "We're able to create new markets because we can make (production) more cost-efficient and can sell the vaccines for less. This lends itself to underserved areas where costs are not viable."

Chicken eggs are the most common platforms for producing vaccines. Strains are injected into the eggs. Viruses multiply inside the eggs as they incubate, and the fluid inside is harvested.

But Inserogen's 'biofactories', the lush, green tobacco that is its platform for producing vaccine, chart a different course.

The Inserogen team members engineer bacteria in the lab, customising it to carry the gene of the vaccine they want to make before embedding it in the plants.

The tobacco plants metabolise the bacterial DNA, and the proteins that the plants produce are then extracted to develop vaccine.

Mr Arzola said: "The advantage is speed. This requires a smaller, cheaper facility to process the leaves than egg or cell-culture facilities. By using tobacco plants to develop vaccines, we can go from gene to vaccine in six weeks."

Others are also experimenting with the plant-based technology.

In February, Texas A&M University became home to Project GreenVax. The Texas A&M project, mostly funded by the Department of Defense, is designed to be a rapid-response production line for vaccines.

The need for quickly developed mass doses of vaccines was made more urgent during the influenza pandemic of 2009.

It was little more than a year ago that the deadly strain of swine flu triggered fear of a global outbreak as health officials scrambled to develop enough H1N1 vaccine to stem the virus and save lives.

The US government spent months and more than $1 billion on the effort, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says millions across the country were infected, and thousands died.

"If you are able to make vaccines in a short time, there's no need to produce vaccines in response" to an outbreak, Arzola said.

The team has demonstrated the technology, has a patent pending and is in talks with the university to licence SwiftVax, reports Evansville Courier & Press.

Further Reading

- Find out more information on Newcastle disease by clicking here.
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