RTP company using plants to make flu vaccines

RTP company using plants to make flu vaccines (Image 1)

Every year North Carolinians are urged to get a flu shot, and this season is one of the worst with 17 flu-related deaths in our state.

There have even been reports of vaccine shortages, but Medicago in Research Triangle Park is promising to change the way we handle flu pandemics with the Nicotiana Benthamiana plant, which is a relative of the tobacco plant.  

The large-leafed plant could revolutionize how we vaccinate against the deadly flu virus. Mike Wanner with Medicago says his company is using those large leaves to make vaccines more quickly. 

“The current egg-based technology takes about four to six months. Comparably we could do that in two to three months,” says Wanner. 

The other benefit of plant-based vaccines is that they are cheaper to make and cut production costs.

“The sun is giving us energy we need. We recycle all the fertilizer and liquid,” says Wanner. 

To make the vaccine, it goes from seedling to full plant in about five weeks. Then the state of the art process begins in the Infiltration Room at Medicago.

Medicago’s Todd Talarico says this is where the magic really happens, where racks of plants are turned upside down, lowered into a vacuum infiltration unit. The vacuum then draws the air out of the surface of the plant leaf. And then like a sponge, the leaves absorb the agro-bacterium solution. 

Talarico says, “this is special bacteria. They are known in nature to be able to take a piece of their dna and transfer it into the plant cell. 

The plants are now essentially a host which will carry a flu fighting DNA. After this process, the plants are taken into a different area of Medicago where they are watered and exposed to a certain amount of light. 

The leaves of the plants hold the key virus particles. They are chopped into small segments and moved into a large digestion kettle. Enzymes break down the leaves into a liquid form that can then be purified into a flu vaccine. 

If all goes as planned, Medicago says it can produce 10 million doses of the flu vaccine per month. Clinical trials for the seasonal flu vaccine begin this year.  Medicago’s plant-based vaccines go beyond the flu. It’s also being tested to immunize against rabies and rotavirus.

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