Tobacco brings biotech jobs to NC

Posted November 14, 2011

Politics is my first love, but science is a close second. So it’s a good day for me when the two intersect, as they did today in Research Triangle Park.

Governor Bev Perdue, Senator Richard Burr, and Congressman David Price were on hand for this morning’s ribbon-cutting at Medicago, a Quebec-based vaccine maker that’s figured out how to use tobacco plants to produce flu vaccine – bringing in 85 jobs and $11 million in investment along the way.

The new facility is dominated by a 97,000 square foot greenhouse, pretty much fully automated. Huge flats of thousands of tobacco plants move slowly through the climate-controlled greenhouse, growing for a little over four weeks before they’re ready to be used to make vaccines.

How it works

Vaccines use little bits of virus to help your immune system get acquainted with microbes that could hurt you. When your immune system encounters the invader in the vaccine, it makes antibodies that match up to it like a key to a lock, effectively disabling it from taking over your cells to use them to replicate itself.  Those antibodies stick around to defend you if you run into the microbe again. 

Using imposter viruses is nothing new. For example, the smallpox vaccine used monkeypox as a substitute because monkeypox, while a lot less dangerous than smallpox, looked enough like the real thing to prime your immune system to respond to it.

Here’s where it gets a little Michael Crichton-esque. What Medicago has figured out how to do is make plants make those imposters – without any viruses at all.

When a plant is attacked by a bacteria, it cranks out little protein packets (or as Medicago calls them, “Virus-Like Particles”) to fend off the infection. Much like human antibodies, what the protein packet looks like depends on the bacteria attacking it.

Medicago has figured out how to genetically engineer plant-attacking bacteria to get plants to produce protein packets – lots and lots of them – that look (at least to your immune system) like the flu. Except that there’s no virus inside the packet. It’s like an empty egg shell or CD case – recognizable packaging without the payload.

As far as your body’s concerned, it’s all the same thing. Your body finds the invader and makes antibodies to disable it. Because it doesn’t have DNA, it can’t reproduce itself, so it can't infect you. But when you run into the flu, those same antibodies will respond.

Why plants?

The advantage to using plants is speed and cost. It takes about a month to manufacture a batch of plant-based vaccine – much faster than the current chicken-egg method which takes about six months. That’s good news if you’re facing a global pandemic that’s spreading quickly (think H1N1). And that’s why a lot of the funding for the new project has come from federal grants from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), charged with beefing up national response capabilities to an outbreak of a natural or engineered disease.

Cost matters a lot, too. Medicago says it chose tobacco as its “factory” because tobacco naturally churns out lots and lots of packets to defend itself without any need for genetic tinkering. It can be grown pretty much anywhere, it grows fast, and it’s inexpensive. That helps with one of the key drawbacks to traditional vaccine production – it tends to be expensive, time-consuming, and limited in terms of shelf-life, which means it’s not particularly profitable for the companies working on it.

The company’s vaccines have passed FDA phase I and II trials for its seasonal and avian flu vaccines, respectively. Company leaders say they’re on track to meet a DARPA milestone – producing 10 million doses of flu vaccine in a month – by next year. And they’re also looking into developing other plant-based vaccines for other diseases.

For choosing to locate its US production in NC, the company got $128,000 from the One North Carolina Fund in August 2010, along with some local incentives.

“National importance”

Elected officials at ribbon-cuttings are generally effusive. But today’s remarks from Burr, Price, and Perdue were even more enthusiastic than usual.

“This facility is of national importance,” said Congressman David Price, ranking minority member of the Homeland Security budget committee.

“This is absolutely crucial to our ability to defend this country,” agreed Senator Richard Burr.

“This is the 21st century manufacturing business,” said Burr. “It doesn’t look like what we’ve been accustomed to. But this is more what the world’s gonna look like. And we’ve got the workforce ready to go to that line.”

Perdue, too, credited the state’s workforce and university system for sealing the deal. “Make no mistake,” she told the crowd. “Medicago could have gone anywhere.”

But, she added, the state’s historic association with tobacco also played a part.

“When I grew up, tobacco was something you smoked or chewed or dipped. Who would have thought it would be used in 21st century vaccines and medical products?" Perdue asked. "That talks a whole lot about the transformation of this state.” 


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