In a bid to produce effective vaccines on a large scale and at low cost, scientists have managed to hijack the cells of plants to produce completely safe virus mimics that can then protect humans from the disease.
The research, carried out at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, has been used to create a novel type of vaccine that they hope will help to globally eradicate polio. It uses what are called “virus-like particles”, which are non-pathogenic mimics of the virus that, while not causing the disease, are similar enough to stimulate the immune system to produce the correct antibodies.
Published in the journal Nature Communications, the work describes how they have been able to insert genes into the plant tissues that code for a protein that mimics the shell of the polio virus, but contains none of the viral DNA. This makes the vaccine completely non-infectious, mimicking the behavior of the virus but not actually causing the disease and eliminating any chance it might replicate.
There are currently two types of vaccines that are used to combat polio, an inactivated type and an attenuated or “live” type. The latter is the oral form mainly used in the developing world as it is cheaper to produce, and while the prevalence of the virus has been reduced by 99 percent globally, the use of the attenuated virus basically maintains a small amount of the polio virus in the global population and prevents it being eradicated 100 percent.
Because of this, the World Health Organization wants to shift the production of vaccines towards creating the inactivated type, and so are seeking ways of doing so at reduced cost.
Not only that, but by showing that these polio virus mimics can be successfully grown in plants, it is hoped that the technology could then be applied to other vaccines such as Ebola or Zika.
“The beauty of this system of growing non-pathogenic virus mimics in plants, is that it boosts our ability to scale-up the production of vaccine candidates to combat emerging threats to human health,” said Professor George Lomonossoff, in a statement.
This will hopefully mean that researchers will be able to produce large volumes of virus-like particles for use in vaccines, while at the same time eliminating the chance that there may be some accidental reintroductions of the actual virus into the global population.