Why tobacco might be in your next flu shot

Medicago is using a relative of the tobacco plant to develop a new flu shot.

As the supply of vaccines continues to drop in wake of the newest flu epidemic, one company is turning to a peculiar source to combat the virus: tobacco plants.

Medicago, which develops vaccines for a variety of infectious diseases worldwide, is using tobacco plants to fight the flu thanks to their genetic properties and low maintenance costs. Though the scientists are not able to create a vaccine for the current strain, they will have Phase II results of their experiment by this summer. From there, the time line to completion is common to any vaccine approval process — about four or five years.

We asked Mike Wanner, the executive vice president of operations at Medicago, to tell us more about his company’s efforts to fight the flu.

How did you discover that tobacco plants could be used to create flu vaccines?
Plants are one of the world’s most cost-effective protein producers and can make virtually any type of protein. Medicago’s process for manufacturing the virus-like protein has been developed and optimized for use with a relative of the tobacco plant. The leaves of these plants are well-suited to rapidly incorporate the genetic information required to produce proteins that appear to the human immune system as a live virus but are really virus-like particles.

Do patients who receive a tobacco-made vaccine get any tobacco byproducts in their bodies as a result?
No. Our vaccine facility includes a state-of-the-art extraction and purification unit and effectively removes plant cell materials. Therefore, the purity level of our product is extremely high.

Is it now too late to get a flu shot?
No, everyone who has not yet gotten vaccinated should do so as soon as possible. The vaccine is known to become effective within about two weeks of vaccination.

What causes a flu epidemic to go away?
In the general population, as the epidemic proceeds the number of people who are susceptible to a specific flu strain ultimately decreases — and so the rate at which new infections arise also decreases. Eventually, the rate at which individuals are recovering exceeds the rate at which new infections are occurring. When this rate drops to zero, the epidemic is over.


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