Texas university gets $40 million grant to make tobacco-based vaccine

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The Texas A&M University System and a Texas company have been awarded a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop vaccines made from tobacco rather than the antiquated egg-based technology, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The so-called Texas Plant-Expressed Vaccine-Consortium on Feb. 24 announced the manufacturing initiative, which will be headquartered in a 145,000-square-foot facility to be constructed on a 21-acre site on the Texas A&M Health Science Center in Bryan.

“If this works, we will have a billion-dose-per-month vaccine facility in Texas, which would be by far the largest and most capable center in the world,” said Brett Giroir, vice chancellor for research for the A&M System and co-principal investigator for the project. “It would have … overwhelming health implications for the nation and world.”

The biotherapeutic manufacturing initiative is designed to show proof of concept for the new technology, which could dramatically increase the nation’s capability to produce vaccines for infectious diseases including influenza.

“Although the initial goal is to produce influenza vaccines,” said Dr. Barry Holtz, president of G-Con, “plant-based production is highly adaptable to other infectious diseases and even cancer.”

G-Con is a private company that will construct and manufacture the biotherapeutic production facility.

Giroir said the consortium hopes to have a new flu vaccine in clinical trials by mid to late 2011.

Flu vaccines currently are made from chicken eggs, a technology that has changed little since the 1950s. The delay in last fall's H1N1 supply, caused by unexpectedly low yields of vaccine from inoculated eggs, highlighted the technology's limits. Voices of criticism include the director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's National Vaccine Program Office.

Egg-based vaccines typically take at least six months to develop from the time the virus is first isolated. Giroir said he anticipates the process will take four to six weeks using tobacco.

Project GreenVax also holds the promise of allowing rapid response to newly emerging viruses not possible with current technology.

Several cell-culture based technologies, using sources from cocker spaniels to caterpillars, are the subject of research.

But Giroir said the tobacco-based technology is the farthest along. Delaware researchers successfully tested the model on ferrets, which can get influenza, and researchers at A&M and G-Con have used Texas' Emerging Technology Fund money to further develop it.

Giroir said tobacco is a good source for growing flu proteins because it has been studied extensively and grows easily. It is free of nicotine.

The Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm, estimated in a report that by the 10th year, the project would generate nearly 4,000 jobs and about $800 million annually in expenditures.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency awarded the consortium the grant to make an initial 10 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine. Giroir said the consortium would swiftly ramp up from that amount to 100 million doses.

The flexibility of the plant-based system, combined with its low cost and ability to massively scale, may provide vaccine protection not only to citizens of the United States, but to many parts of the world that cannot currently afford vaccines, the university said in a press release.