Plant Based Vaccines Challenge Pharma

Plant Based Vaccines Challenge PharmaThe use of plants to produce life-saving pharmaceuticals caught global attention when it was revealed the Ebola drug ZMapp is produced from tobacco leaves. Now two small companies are preparing to challenge some of the world’s largest drug markets by introducing plant based vaccines. According to experts, making vaccinations from plants may turn out to be a faster and cheaper method than the current method which uses chicken eggs to grow the virus needed to make the vaccine.

Plant-Based Method

Leading producers of vaccinations like GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi need about six months to produce flu vaccine once the scientists identify the dominant virus expected to circulate during flu season. Vaccine production from tobacco plants by Quebec City- based, Medicago and Texas-based Caliber Biotherapeutics could do it in weeks. Brett Giroir, CEO of Texas A&M Health Center says, “7 to 10 years from now, plants might be the dominant vaccine production system.” Texas A&M is one of three U.S. facilities that is ready to produce and deliver 50 million doses of flu vaccines in just 12 weeks. These facilities threaten leading pharmaceutical companies that dominate flu vaccine production.

When Will Plant Based Vaccines Take Effect?

Medicago is testing its flu vaccine in elderly people, who are most at risk, and plans to launch a large human trial in 2016. Director of government affairs, Jean-Luc Martre, hopes to hit the market in 2019. However, tobacco plants could be used to fight against the flu even sooner if a pandemic hit.  Each year manufacturers including Sanofi, Novartis, the Medimmune unit of AstraZeneca, and GSK make about 155 million doses of the flu vaccine for the U.S. alone, growing the virus in chicken eggs.

Usually this method is successful at protecting against strains that experts predict the previous February. But, if the strain that appears during flu season was not the one experts foretold, the vaccines may not work. For example, the appearance of H1N1 swine flu in 2009-2010 took experts by surprise; the flu was already circulating before a vaccine was ready. An estimated 61 million people in the U.S. contracted swine flu and 12,500 died. The ability to produce effective plant-based vaccines at a moments notice will provide more effective protection against ever changing strains.


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