The Tobacco Plant Revival: Helping the World Fight Influenza

Medicago Inc., Québec, Québec

The exile of the tobacco plant is over: tobacco plants have shown they can act as safe and speedy factories for producing pandemic flu vaccines, thanks to Quebec City’s biotechnology company Medicago Inc.

Medicago redeems the tobacco plant by using it as the basis for growing vaccines against the flu. The company grows virus-like particles that mimic the influenza virus – the Avian and Swine flu strains in particular – in the plants, which are then processed into vaccines, says Andy Sheldon, president and CEO of Medicago.

“We use the cells within the tobacco plants to produce proteins which can be useful to man,” says Sheldon. This process is currently one of the fastest methods for the production of vaccines. Start-to-finish manufacturing of an influenza vaccine can be done in as little as 14 days, compared to the six months it takes for the traditional manufacturing method in eggs.

“Speed is of the essence” when it comes to vaccine production as pandemic flus can take less than six months to circle the globe, says Sheldon. Already many nations are predicting a backlog of H1N1 vaccine production as approved manufacturers struggle to meet quotas. The reason, says Sheldon, is that the traditional egg-based vaccines are manufactured with whole, mutated, non-disease causing viruses supplied by the World Health Organization (WHO), and these whole viruses are only providing one quarter to one half of the current vaccine “yield.” Medicago’s tobacco plant-based vaccines do not rely on these whole viruses, which allows the company to produce good vaccine yields.

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