Scientists Make Flu Shots in Tobacco Plants: No More Egg Allergies?


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Tobacco plants are being used to make vaccines. Photo by Derek Ramsey.

Tobacco plants: New sources of vaccines? Photo by Derek Ramsey.

You heard that right! A bio-pharmaceutical company called Medicago is working on a new way of making the seasonal influenza vaccination. The influenza vaccine, like most vaccines, are grown in chicken eggs; however, this new way of making the flu vaccine will use plants instead of chicken eggs.

If all goes according to plan, this could mean that those who are allergic to eggs, could potentially now get the seasonal flu shot.

Tobacco Plant vs. Chicken Eggs for Vaccine

So how does using a plant to make a vaccine work? The company Medicago, breaks it all down in six steps.

  1. Synthesis is the first step and uses genes from a sequence of the particular virus, such as the influenza or norwalk virus. This means that the researchers re-engineered plant viruses to reproduce high levels of specialty designed virus-like particles (VLPs) for the tobacco plants.
  2. Vacuum Infiltration: This is the process in which the plants are introduced to the genetic material.
  3. The plants then incubate for four to six days in a greenhouse so that the plants can develop the protein expression and VLP formation.
  4. Next, the researchers harvest the plants to extract the VLPs
  5. The researchers purify the VLPs to obtain clinical grade material.
  6. The vaccine is then ready. These vaccines result in a better immune response, use a lower dose, and don’t have any genetic material.

Compare the tobacco plant vaccine to the traditional way of making vaccines and you’ll quickly see which process is quicker.

Manufacturers currently grow the influenza virus in fertilized chicken eggs and allow them to incubate for several days so that the virus can multiply. Then they harvest the virus, which then undergoes a purification process. Finally, they release the antigen from the egg’s cell.

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