While viruses like H1N1 scare the living bejesus out of us, they’ve also been spurring science to look for new ways to produce vaccines quickly. Last year, H1N1 was responsible for more than 12,200 deaths, and the first batches of vaccines took about 7 whole months after the first cases were reported to ship. Researchers at the Texas Plant-Expressed Vaccine Consortium, a joint venture between The Texas A&M University System and pharmaceutical facility technology maker G-Con, LLC, think that they could solve some of the efficiency issues that plague vaccine production with an unconventional plant-based approach. Called Project GreenVax, the plans entails using a combination of tobacco plants and podlike laboratories that will be able to scale up or down in direct relation to vaccine demand.
In order to make a traditional vaccine, scientists crack the shells of chicken eggs and inject the influenza virus into the fluid surrounding the embryo. If all goes well, the virus will multiply and after several days of incubation, the virus is removed, purified and made into vaccine. Following the “egg” method, it takes about two weeks to produce a flu vaccine in quantities that are less than ideal.
The plant-based approach on the other hand, entails scientists infecting a plant’s leaves with the virus. Compared to eggs, plants are cheaper and easier to grow and have the potential to produce more vaccine per plant than is possible per egg. Not all of the kinks have been worked out though – for example, there is a possibility that proteins cultivated in plants might be different than those cultivated in animal cells, and may not be as effective or even effective at all. Only more research and time will tell.