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Tobacco plants may be new incubator for vaccines for flu – or bio-terrorism
08-17-2010, 08:34 PM, (This post was last modified: 08-17-2010, 08:37 PM by TriWooOx.)
Tobacco plants may be new incubator for vaccines for flu – or bio-terrorism
Quote:A $21-million-dollar infusion from the U.S. Defense Department’s research arm will help a Canadian company set up a manufacturing plant to incubate flu vaccine in tobacco leaves.

Medicago Inc., a Quebec City-based biotech firm, is setting up an 85,000-square-foot facility in Durham, N.C., to manufacture 10 million doses of flu vaccine a month using their new technology. The company’s start-up there will translate into about 85 new jobs in Durham by the end of the 14-month contract, with some new hires in Canada as well.

Medicago has a unique technology that uses tobacco plants rather than hen’s eggs to manufacture the vaccine, said Andy Sheldon, the CEO of the company.

The production process is relatively simple and amazingly fast, Sheldon said. A five-week-old Australian tobacco plant, which does not have nicotine in it, is put in a solution that is full of a bacteria that carries a genetic code for the DNA for the vaccine. The leaves and solution are put in a steel tank and a vacuum is created.

The plants then absorb the information that is carried in the solution. The plants are pulled out of the steel tank and are incubated in a greenhouse for five days. The cells within the tobacco leaves then produce the protein for the vaccine.

Next, scientists “extract the protein from the leaves,” said Sheldon, by breaking down the cellulose of the leaf.

But it’s not just the battle against influenza that concerns the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, prompting it to fund work at Medicago. One of the things that the Quebec firm’s technology could be used for is vaccines or antidotes for biological terrorism or warfare.

“DARPA understands that there needs to be faster technology, not just for vaccines but for any bio threat that comes along,” Sheldon said in an interview with the Star. “There’s a large market for bio-threat products,” he said.

Over the next 14 months, the Quebec-based company will build a plant, scale it up and then see if it can produce 10 million doses of H1N1 in one month, a considerably shorter time than it took companies to produce a vaccine last year when the fear of an H1N1 pandemic gripped the world.

It took almost six months before an H1N1 vaccine was ready to be shipped, leaving many to panic when the vaccine was not immediately available.

“What we saw through the pandemic flu scenario last year,” said Sheldon, “(was) you couldn’t deliver product to market in time.”

But Sheldon said that, with the technique using tobacco leaves, the company can produce a large amount of product very quickly.

“We’re quicker. We believe we can get to market faster. But we’re going to need all kind of technology to meet demand. Egg-based and cell-based culture systems are still good.”

Meanwhile, Medicago’s Quebec plant is completing clinical trials on an avian flu vaccine also made using tobacco plants.
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