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November 21st, 2012:

How tobacco could save our lives

How tobacco could save our lives

By David Worthington | November 21, 2012, 4:50 PM PST

Plants can produce proteins that mimic viruses. (Image credit: Medicago)

Tobacco is not commonly associated with good health, but the plant could one day help prevent pandemic flu. Canadian biopharmaceutical company Medicago is ‘programming’ tobacco plants with the genetic sequences of infectious diseases to produce virus-like particles to ‘grow’ highly effective vaccines at scale.

Yesterday, Medicago announced the results of an NIH study wherein its plant-based avian flu vaccine protected mice against the virus in a single dose (today’s vaccines take two). Virus-like particles (VLP) stimulate different immune pathways than traditional immunizations, because they so closely mimic the flu, explained CEO Andy Sheldon. The immune reaction to VLPs is superior and safeguards against mutations that could occur after a pandemic has already struck, he added.

Plants are living systems that can produce proteins that are useful as both vaccinations and drugs, Sheldon explained. VLPs are not infectious, and can be “harvested” at high yields. The company produced more than 10 million doses of pandemic influenza in one month at a North Carolina facility last summer at the behest of U.S. government. That exercise established the scalability and capital costs of the technology, which is comparable with egg-based vaccines, Sheldon said.

Medicago expects to receive FDA approval for its avian flu vaccine in 2016, and will be seeking capacity reservation contracts with governments for stockpiling against a pandemic. It will start off starting season flus, but world health officials are seeking to safeguard against avian flu due to its high mortality rate, Sheldon noted. Avian flu is currently in the wild, and a single mutation could make it highly contagious.

Other vaccinations will target rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea, and rabies. The company will announce more targets in the coming months, which could include diseases such as HIV, Malaria, and TB. Plants can create complex molecules, which make it possible to manufacture vaccines that were impossible to create using existing technologies, Sheldon said. Its investors seem to be encouraged.

Medicago won the largest single equity raise in Canada for 2011, receiving US$65 million in funds from Phillip Morris and Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma. That will fund its operations for a three-year period, Sheldon noted.

Who would have thought that tabacco would be good for us. Let’s hope its products aren’t needed