By: April Carson
Researchers at the University of California, Riverside (UCR) are attempting to create mRNA vaccine factories from edible plants such as lettuce. The idea is that the plants could be used to produce large quantities of vaccines quickly and cheaply, without the need for refrigeration or other infrastructure.
Another problem with this new technology is that it must be kept cold while being transported and stored to remain stable. Plant-based mRNA vaccines, which may be consumed, might overcome this issue if they are capable of being kept at room temperature.
The objective of the project, which is aided by a $500,000 National Science Foundation award, is threefold: demonstrating that DNA containing mRNA vaccines can be successfully delivered into the region of plant cells where it will replicate, verifying that plants can generate enough mRNA to compete with standard shots, and determining the optimum dose.
“A single plant could, in theory, generate enough mRNA to immunize a single person,” said Juan Pablo Giraldo, PhD, an associate professor of botany and plant sciences at UCR. He is leading the study, which was done in collaboration with researchers from UC San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University.
“We're currently testing this method with spinach and lettuce, and we want people to be able to grow it in their own gardens in the future,” Giraldo added. “It could also be grown on a large scale in the future.”
Chloroplasts are crucial. “They're tiny, solar-powered factories that produce sugar and other molecules, which allow the plant to grow,” he said. “They're also a resource for creating high-value chemicals that have yet to be exploited.”
The UCR team is working on a method to fuse the chloroplasts of one plant with those of another. The process would allow for the transfer of genes between plants, which could create new combinations of traits not found in nature.
For example, the team has created a spinach plant that produces human antibodies. When the leaves of this plant are eaten, they could provide immunity to diseases such as measles, polio, and influenza.
“We envision a future where edible vaccines are produced using this technology and administered through the food supply,” Giraldo said. “This would be a low-cost way to vaccinate large populations, especially in developing countries.”
Giraldo previously demonstrated that chloroplasts can produce genes that are not native to the plant. He and his team did so by inserting foreign genetic material into cells within a protective casing. Giraldo's laboratory is expert in determining the optimal properties of these casings for plant cell delivery.
Giraldo collaborated with Nicole Steinmetz, PhD, a UC San Diego nanoengineering professor, to utilize her team's nanotechnologies to send genetic material to the chloroplasts.
“Plant viruses are a terrific source for naturally occurring nanomaterials, and we want to use them in plant gene therapy,” explained Steinmetz. “Engineering is required to make the particles enter the chloroplasts and render them non-infectious.”
The engineered particles are made from a protein found in the Tobacco rattle virus, which insert themselves into plant cells without causing disease. The viral particle is then filled with a piece of DNA that codes for the production of an antigen, or the portion of a pathogen that the immune system recognizes. When the plant is eaten, the gut breaks down the casing and release the DNA. As the plant cells produce more antigens, they also stimulate an immune response in the person consuming them.
“I wanted to work in nanotechnology so I could use it on plants and develop new technology solutions. Not simply for food, but also for high-value items like pharmaceuticals,” said Giraldo, who is also working on a related project that uses nanomaterials to deliver nitrogen directly to chloroplasts, where plants require the most.
The National Science Foundation has given Giraldo and his colleagues $1.6 million to construct the precise nitrogen delivery technology. Giraldo is also working with colleagues in the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a $2 million project to improve methods for creating and delivering edible vaccines using plants.
“This technology will allow us to put almost anything we want into a plant, including pharmaceuticals and vaccines,” said Giraldo. “It will be a game changer in terms of how we deliver therapeutics."
The approach is not only more efficient than current methods, which can take weeks or months to produce a vaccine, but it is also less expensive.
“It costs about $1 per dose to produce these vaccines using plants, compared to $10-$100 per dose for traditional methods,” said Giraldo.
The team is currently working on developing vaccines for cholera and Norovirus, as well as a plant-based HIV vaccine.
“This is a very exciting time for the field of edible vaccines,” said Giraldo. “We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what is possible.”
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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