The R&D arm of the U.S. Department of Defense is bankrolling a consortium involved in a quest to produce vaccines in genetically-engineered tobacco plants. Appalled by the slow-motion response of manufacturers to the sudden appearance of the swine flu pandemic, federal officials are hoping that their assistance can help trigger a game-changing advance in vaccine technology.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--best known as DARPA--is providing $40 million for 10 million doses of H1N1 vaccine. Texas A&M and the privately operated G-Con will invest another $21 million in the project, which has been dubbed GreenVax. The consortium says they can eventually push production to 100 million doses a month.
In recent years, a number of research projects have revolved around producing vaccines in animals and plants. Arizona State researchers produced a West Nile vaccine in plants that proved promising. And, as the Wall Street Journal notes, tobacco has emerged as one of the most promising vehicles for new vaccine production. It's cheap to grow and could be used to produce a bumper crop of new vaccines. Medicago has reported progress with its tobacco-based vaccine for bird flu.
GreenVax is working with technology that was developed at Fraunhofer USA Center for Molecular Biotechnology in collaboration with iBio. But success won't come easily. The U.S. and most other countries have seen a growing ambivalence to anything new in vaccines, an industry which has been dogged by bad science and vehement critics.