Since the influenza virus mutates every year, the vaccine against it has to be reformulated accordingly every flu season, which is a massive undertaking. But a recent breakthrough — which sees the tobacco plant as the main protagonist — could make things easier for vaccine developers.
In first-of-its-kind development for vaccine research, a new flu vacine grown in plants has passed two large-scale clinical trials. To create it, researchers extracted virus-like particles from native Australian tobacco plants that were genetically instructed to produce viral proteins.
The two trials involved nearly 23,000 people and the results suggest that the plant-based vaccines are just as safe as current flu vaccines.
“To the best of our knowledge, these studies and the clinical development program that preceded them are the largest demonstrations to date of the potential for a plant-based platform to produce a human vaccine that can be safe, immunogenic, and effective,” said the research team behind the study.
The problem with most of today’s influenza vaccines is that they are made using virus particles grown in and harvested from chicken eggs or lab-grown cells — an outdated method that can take months even after researchers work out which flu strains they need to target.
The recent development, however, promises to be a huge boost to the annual fight against the seasonal flu, as plants can be engineered to produce viral proteins and cultivated at scale. Not only that, but the new technique might also help overcome complications encountered in the way current flu shots are manufactured that sometimes render vaccines less effective.
While the results are incredibly promising, there are still many regulatory checkpoints the plant-based vaccine has to reach before it becomes widely-used. That being said, if everything goes well, the breakthrough could revolutionize the way we develop vaccines.