Producing vaccines and other pharmaceutical products from genetically modified plants has many advantages over traditional methods: shorter development times, lower costs and less risk of contamination. US industry and research institutions are planning to collaborate.
On January 14, the Dow Chemical Company announced the signing of a four-year, $ 5.7 million collaborative research agreement with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to apply new technology in the rapid development of vaccines. As a leading science and technology company supplying a wide variety of pharmaceutical and chemical products and services to consumer markets in more than 170 countries, Dow intends to subcontract part of this technology development work to the Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biotechnology in the USA. Based in Newark (Delaware), this center was established by Rainer Fischer, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology IME, in July 2001. Scientists at the University of Maryland will screen the vaccines to verify their efficacy before clinical tests are carried out on humans – depending on the type of vaccine being developed.
The NIH had requested proposals for new vaccine technologies to combat infectious diseases, including biowarfare agents. Dow’s approach will be based on new plant viral particle technology, with vaccine protein biosynthesis taking place in the leaves of genetically engineered plants grown in greenhouses. This avoids the traditional and more painstaking vaccine production processes that involve fermenting bacteria in sterile vats or cultivating animal cells in sterile tissue culture.
Scientists at the Fraunhofer Center will be exploring complementary technology and aim to deliver a highly developed plant virus platform system with a wide host range. According to executive director Barry Marrs, vaccines produced from plants are safer than those developed in eggs or other animal hosts. "A plant-based vaccine system will reduce the risk of contamination by animal pathogens. We have seen excellent results in preliminary animal testing."
Speed of production is the most significant advantage according to Carolyn Fritz, Dow’s global business director for industrial biotechnology: "We anticipate that our plant technology will cut production time to three or four months, reduce costs, and produce effective and safe vaccines that can be delivered by capsule or nasal spray. This would be a big improvement over existing technology."
Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. February 2004.