Researchers at Arizona State University have come up with a truly ingenious way to make large amounts of usable antigens for the creation of vaccines -- using tobacco plants and a tobacco plant virus.
The Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) is a common problem for tobacco crops. In its natural form, it eats away at the leaves, flowers and fruit of the tobacco plant. But TMV can be easily modified by researchers, and can be used to introduce new genes to tobacco plants without using transgenic modification (meaning that the new genes will not be passed along to any subsequent offspring of the plants). ASU scientists employed TMV as a way to introduce genes that prompt the production of plague antibodies; the modified tobacco plants produce large amounts of antibodies in relatively short periods of time. Moreover, the technique allowed the researchers to trigger the production of very specific forms of the plague antigens, substantially reducing the incidence of adverse reactions.
Like most crops, producing vaccines in tobacco plants primarily revolved around issues of speed, low cost and high yield. The major advantage of the vaccine is the rapidity of the system, said Santi. In a matter of 10 days, we can go from infecting the plants to harvesting the plants. From there, we purify the antigens in an additional one to two weeks to create the vaccine. [...]
The beauty of the system is its potential versatility to fight against other pathogens as well. The research teams next step is to refine their methods to achieve a large-scale commercial production of the vaccine.
As dangerous as plague can be -- especially with the possibility of its use as a bioweapon -- there are other diseases that would also benefit from a quick, relatively inexpensive method of vaccine production. It would be a welcome irony if tobacco, long a global health scourge, became the vehicle for widespread production of effective and safe immunization.