Tobacco leaves could hold key to rapid bioterror vaccines

Officials with a Canadian biotech firm recently announced they will be setting up a manufacturing plant to incubate flu vaccines in tobacco leaves in a process that could aid in fighting bioterrorism.

Medicago officials said they will be setting up the new 85,000-square-foot plant in Durham, N.C. , thanks to a $21 million cash infusion from the U.S. Defense Department. Officials say the plant will manufacture approximately 10 million doses of flu vaccine per month. Officials estimate the opening of the plant will create some 85 new jobs in Durham by the end of the 14-month contract.

Flu vaccines may not be the only concern for United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to Medicago president and CEO Andy Sheldon. Sheldon told the Toronto Star that DARPA funded the project because of its potential as a vaccine or antidote for biological terrorism.

“DARPA understands that there needs to be faster technology, not just for vaccines but for any bio threat that comes along,” Sheldon told the Toronto Star. “There’s a large market for bio-threat products.”

Over the next 14 months, Sheldon said, the company will build a plant and then attempt to produce 10 million doses of H1N1 vaccine in one month, a considerably shorter time than it took companies to produce a vaccine last year when the fear of an H1N1 pandemic gripped the world. It took almost six months before an H1N1 vaccine was ready to be shipped, leaving many to panic when the vaccine was not immediately available.

Medicago president and CEO Andy Sheldon told the Toronto Star that his company’s unique technology utilizes tobacco plants as opposed to hen’s eggs in the manufacturing of the vaccine.

Sheldon this technology will allow the company can produce a large amount of product very quickly.

“What we saw through the pandemic flu scenario last year was that you couldn’t deliver product to market in time,” Sheldon told the Toronto Star. “We’re quicker. We believe we can get to market faster. But we’re going to need all kind of technology to meet demand. Egg-based and cell-based culture systems are still good.”