When you hear the word tobacco, chances are you think of cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or ailing public health. However, thanks to an early-stage biotechnology firm backed by big tobacco companies such as, Philip Morris International Inc., this association may soon change. This QuÃ©bec-based biotechnology firm, Medicago, uses the Australian tobacco strain Nicotiana benthamiana to manufacture H1N1 flu vaccines.
You may be saying, big deal, I get a flu vaccine every year. However, what sets Medicago’s technology apart is the potential to produce vaccines much more rapidly and with more flexibility. Most current influenza vaccines are produced in fertilized eggs, a technology that has barely changed in over 70 years. In the egg based method, the embryo is infected so that the virus can multiply and after a period of incubation, the virus is harvested and purified. This method, although functional, is extremely inadequate to address pandemics, as it generates low yields, does not rapidly scale, and is dependent on an abundance of available eggs.
In 2009, the emergence of the H1N1 flu strain after the flu vaccine supply had already been produced highlighted the need for a faster and more efficient way to create a vaccine. With Medicago’s new system, the process takes slightly more than a few weeks and produces larger amounts of vaccine. In addition, using the tobacco plant may be beneficial because it reduces the risk of allergic reactions.
A simple overview of the new process:
- Scientists isolate a protein from the flu virus that triggers a protective immune response in patients.
- They implant the gene for this protein into bacteria.
- They then infect a tobacco plant with the bacteria.
- The gene is incorporated into the plant directing it to produce the flu proteins.
- The proteins are then extracted from the plant and purified into a vaccine.
Medicago has completed Phase II trials on a pandemic flu vaccine, completed Phase I trials on a seasonal flu vaccine, and received a $21 million grant. This grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is being used to build a 90,000-square-foot facility in the United States that aims to have the capability to produce 10 million vaccine doses per month.
It is no secret that large tobacco players have been searching for additional ways to take advantage of their cash crop, and their bet on bio-tech might be the pay off. It may be hard to believe, but one day the word tobacco may be associated with positive health choices. Only time will tell if this new product is feasible and not just propaganda for a controversial cash crop.
Medicago is listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange under the symbol: MDG. Philip Morris International Inc. is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and the Euronext Paris under the symbol: PM
Correction: 11/2/2011 Medicago is based out of QuÃ©bec and not Montreal as initially reported