Science and Technology News

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fighting Pandemics With The Power Of Plants


Even the word conjures up strong feelings and emotions (and, in some cases, dramatic film representations of what it would be like to have to survive such a thing).  As overall human activity pushes ever further into previously undeveloped territory, the likelihood of exposure to new pandemic diseases increases.

U.S. military forces are the front line of U.S. national security, but as a globally deployed force they are also on the front line of any new pathogen-based health threat that may emerge.  The 2009 Army Posture Statement, cites a World Health Organization estimate of between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s population being affected if a pandemic were to emerge.

WHO forecasts “it may be six to nine months before a vaccine for a pandemic virus strain becomes available.”

I’m sorry, have these people not seen a “virus wipes out the world” movie or video game?  Six to nine months is the difference between a little plague and a zombie outbreak! There has to be a better way!  Oh…That’s what they’re working on.

In a separate report on pandemic influenza, the WHO describes several challenges to producing sufficient volumes of vaccine using current, egg-based protein-production technology, including the likelihood that two doses per person could be required due to the absence of pre-existing immunity.  In short, the potential for a pandemic exists and current technological limitations on defensive measures put the health and readiness of U.S. military forces at risk.

A technological solution to increase the speed and adaptability of vaccine production is urgently needed to match the broad biological threat.  Okay, I think I can safely say that none of us really want to see/experience/die from a pandemic of any sort, thereby justifying the need for swift virus-killing resolution.  Therefore, bring on the alternatives, please.

Researchers at DARPA (oh those clever folks) are working on this very thing, and one one of the ways that they’re doing that is by using the power of plants.

DARPA’s Blue Angel program seeks to demonstrate a flexible and agile capability for the Department of Defense to rapidly react to and neutralize any natural or intentional pandemic disease.  Building on a previous DARPA program, Accelerated Manufacture of Pharmaceuticals, Blue Angel targets new ways of producing large amounts of high-quality, vaccine-grade protein in less than three months in response to emerging and novel biological threats.

One of the research avenues explores plant-made proteins for candidate vaccine production.

“Vaccinating susceptible populations during the initial stage of a pandemic is critical to containment,” said Dr. Alan Magill, DARPA program manager. “We’re looking at plant-based solutions to vaccine production as a more rapid and efficient alternative to the standard egg-based technologies, and the research is very promising.”

In a recent milestone development under Blue Angel, researchers at Medicago Inc. produced more than 10 million doses (as defined in an animal model) of an H1N1 influenza vaccine candidate based on virus-like particles (VLP) in one month. Production adhered to Phase 1 appropriate current good manufacturing practices.  Now that’s the kind of turnaround I like to see.

Very unlike the slow and terrifying process Will Smith’s character went through in the movie I Am Legend that led to him having a deadly standoff with a bunch of clever zombies (and there  is no worse kind of zombie to have, if you ask me) in his glass-walled laboratory.  We’ll call this: worst case scenario.

The Blue Angel work was part of a “rapid fire” test that ran from March 25, 2012, to April 24, 2012, at a facility in Durham, NC. A third-party laboratory tested the production lots to confirm the immunogenicity of the vaccine candidate. Testing confirmed that a single dose of the H1N1 VLP influenza vaccine candidate induced protective levels of hemagglutinin antibodies in an animal model when combined with a standard aluminum adjuvant.

The equivalent dose required to protect humans from natural disease can only be determined by future, prospective clinical trials.

“The results we’ve achieved here with plant-based production of vaccines represent both significant increase in scale and decrease in time-to-production over previous production capabilities in the same time period. The plant-made community is now better positioned to continue development and target FDA approval of candidate vaccines,” Magill said. “Once the FDA has approved a plant-made vaccine candidate, the shorter production times of plant-made pharmaceuticals should allow DoD to be much better prepared to face whatever pandemic next emerges.”

I don’t care if it’s humans or aliens or Potty the Potted Plant that saves us, I’m just glad that they’re preparing for epic not-so-great-when-it-happens-in-real-life pandemic emergencies.  I think this might be a turning point in the way we see and work on combating biological challenges like pandemics.  Planets to save the world?  I approve and applaud this concept.  Let’s hope that if and when the time comes, we’re adequately prepared to combat these wide-spread diseases that could infect our troops, and in turn, the rest of our population.

Zombie outbreaks included.

Information for this story provided by DARPA

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military. I Am Legend image courtesy of Warner Bros.

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