Brandon: Plants for disease relief

The announcement last week that Dow AgroSciences was granted the world’s first regulatory approval for a plant-made vaccine marks another step toward the commercialization, and legitimizing, of a technology that holds much promise for new ways of treating a myriad of human and animal diseases.

And it may allow the production of more effective medicines at a lower cost than present methods that are based on expensive animal component research/manufacturing systems. Down the road, researchers envision plant-derived human vaccines that wouldn’t require refrigerated storage, would have few side effects, and could be given in pill, inhalant, or patch form — no more needles!

Dow’s Concert Plant-Cell-Produced System, developed in an amazingly short five years, represents a new category of plant-made vaccines that are expected to be both safe and effective for horses, dogs/cats, poultry, swine, and cattle.

Conventional vaccine production, using animal components, entails the risk of contamination by bacteria and other pathogens. The Dow process instead inserts a protein from a virus or bacteria into a plant cell and reproduces it in a bioreactor. And because it uses a specific protein, animals don’t have the temporary infections that can result with conventional vaccines.

Because the process uses only plant cells instead of whole plants, and the process takes place in a contained environment, there is no possibility of pollen cross-contamination, which has been one of the bugaboos of those who oppose genetically modified crops.

While Dow has won the race to win regulatory approval for the first plant-made vaccine, the surface is only scratched of projects under way worldwide to develop not only pharmaceuticals, but a host of industrial chemicals and products using crops and plants modified to a specific purpose.

Field trials are in progress to “grow” vaccines for the HIV/AIDS complex, rabies, and other diseases. Some could be incorporated into foods — eat a banana and gain immunity to a disease.

There are about 600,000 new cases of cancer each year in the United States alone. More than 3 million people die annually from preventable diseases such as tuberculosis and diphtheria. HIV/AIDS afflicts millions worldwide. Heart disease and arthritis affect hundreds of thousands of others. Diarrheal diseases are a major killer of children in developing countries. Too often, there is not money enough or sufficient manufacturing capacity to produce enough vaccines for even the most preventable diseases. Plant-based vaccines and medicines could, over time, save millions.

Beyond the human/animal medical arena, scientists are using genetically engineered plants to produce a broad spectrum of chemicals used in manufacturing of plastics, paper, detergents, and other industrial products.

Pioneer is field testing corn with a gene for drought tolerance and Monsanto has tests under way for corn and cotton that are drought tolerant. As competition increases for water and it becomes more expensive, both from a resource and a pumping/distribution standpoint, crops that can thrive with less moisture will have an advantage.

The two companies, and others, already have nearly a million acres of low linoleic soybeans in grower fields. Oil from the beans has little or no trans fatty acids, making it more heart healthy for food products.

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