H1N1, SARS and other pandemics, along with increasing antibiotic resistance to infectious diseases and even threats of biological warfare have reinforced the need for safe, effective and inexpensive mass vaccination programs. The answer may lie in nature, with plant-based vaccines. While traditional methods of vaccine production typically take months, the Fraunhofer Centers in the U.S., Boston University and iBio have developed a fully automated, scalable plant "factory" that can produce large quantities of vaccines within weeks.
The factory can grow tens of thousands of plants in one batch, tended by robotic machines that transport multi-plant trays between processing stations, performing functions such as planting seeds, watering and harvesting.
The non-geneticallly-modified seeds are planted in growth trays. Michael Seele, Director of Communications for Boston University College of Engineering, says that one of the project’s most daunting engineering challenges was to develop a system for planting one – and only one – of the tiny seeds into each circular “plot” on the tray.
A viral vector is introduced into the plant, directing it to produce a target protein within the leaves of rapidly growing plant biomass. The biomass is harvested once the target has accumulated in the plant tissue.
Andre Sharon, a professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University and Director of CMI, said they have taken a biological process and turned it into an industrial process.
"Even though the process of making vaccines from plants includes many aspects of traditional horticulture such as growing, watering and harvesting, we have developed a way to automate those functions to quickly, safely and cost effectively scale up from a few milligrams in a laboratory setting to the many kilograms that would be required in case of a pandemic," he said.
"The process is faster, less expensive, safer, and does not require the sophisticated culturing or fermentation necessary in the current vaccine production processes."