Tobacco-Based Flu Vaccine Passes Clinical Trials In a World First

For the first time ever, a vaccine against the common flu has been created thanks to a plant.
Fabienne Lang

The flu, or influenza, has been hitting nations across the world for centuries. In the Northern Hemisphere, we're in the middle of what's called the 'flu season,' as temperatures drop, people can catch the flu. 

In a first, per the Lancet, a team of scientists has created a flu vaccine that derives from a cousin of tobacco plants. The vaccine has smashed through its clinical trials, per Science Alert

The is one of the first times in vaccine research that clinical trials of a plant-derived vaccine against the flu passes with such flying colors. 


Genetically-instructed plant

The new vaccine, which has been worked on by Canadian biotech company, Medicago, contains particles similar to the flu virus that has been extracted from native Australian tobacco plant relatives that were genetically manipulated to produce viral proteins. 

The two clinical trials that tested the vaccine contained around 23,000 adults, which have demonstrated that this vaccine is safe to use and comparable to current commercial flu vaccines already on the market. 

In the Lancet, which published the team's work on Saturday, the team explained, "To the best of our knowledge, these studies and the clinical development program that preceded them are the largest demonstrations to date of the potential for a plant-based platform to produce a human vaccine that can be safe, immunogenic, and effective."

This is a great day for flu vaccines, given the flu virus mutates every flu season and that the vaccines have to keep up so as to protect us against it. 

Normally, regular flu vaccines are made up of virus particles grown in and harvested from chicken eggs or in lab-grown cells, per the research. This method can take months as scientists figure out which flu strains they need to target this flu season. 

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Using plants could be a strong alternative, which would assist in creating seasonal flu vaccines each year. 

The plant used in this new research was a cousin of an Australian tobacco plant, the Nicotiana benthamiana, which was genetically-instructed to produce the outer shell of the influenza viruses. These outer shell particles were then extracted and purified. 

John Tregoning, an infectious disease researcher from Imperial College London, said in a commentary published in the Lancet about the latest trial results, that "This is the first time a plant vaccine has been tested in a [human] clinical trial."

"It is a milestone for this technology and sows the seeds for other plant-based vaccines and therapeutics," he concluded.

Regulatory approvals still need to be put into place for this vaccine, as well as being able to produce it in large enough quantities to make a difference. However, it certainly is a step in the right direction in our seasonal fight against the flu.

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