Medicago has made significant progress toward producing an experimental plant-based vaccine for COVID-19.
The Canada-headquartered biopharmaceutical company is using a virus-like particle (VLP) grown in Nicotiana Benthamiana, a close relative of the tobacco plant, to develop a potential vaccine against the coronavirus disease that has now reached a global pandemic level.
It’s an example of how rapidly science and innovation can achieve positive results for society, regardless of who is funding it.
Following its announcement, Medicago, which is part-funded by Philip Morris International (PMI), said it’s ready to start preclinical testing for safety and efficacy, anticipating the beginning of human trials later this summer.
Medicago is a leader in proprietary plant-based technology that uses virus-like particles (VLP) to develop protein-based vaccines, instead of relying on animal products or live viruses.
The advantages of VLPs over traditional vaccines
Virus-like particles are used to create plant-based vaccines, which mimic viruses, enabling the body’s immune system to recognize them and create an immune response. But they lack the core genetic material of a virus, so they’re not infectious and can’t replicate.
Medicago’s technology only requires the genetic sequence of a viral strain, not the live virus itself. So, the company can mass-produce a therapy to attack a pandemic infection like COVID-19 soon after health officials identify it.
VLP vs traditional vaccine development
By comparison, traditional vaccine development in chicken eggs takes six to nine months. Vaccine manufacturers inject the virus into the eggs, where it propagates. But using eggs is expensive, takes a long time, and is far from perfect. Mutations can yield vaccines that don’t match up to the virus they aim to shut down.
Using a plant-based approach is relatively new, but it has advanced rapidly in the past decade. It inserts a genetic sequence into agrobacterium, a soil-based bacterium, which is taken up by plants – in this case, a close relative of a tobacco plant. The plant begins to produce the protein, that can then be used as a vaccine. If the virus begins to mutate, as is expected for COVID-19, they can update the production using new plants.
Using plants and genetically engineered agrobacteria works faster than eggs, and also makes the vaccine much easier to produce at scale.
Medicago is not new to innovative work on vaccines
In addition to coronavirus treatments, Medicago’s pipeline includes other experimental virus and pandemic therapies. Its first product, a seasonal flu vaccine, is currently under review by Health Canada.
The company is also using its technology to develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 in collaboration with Laval University’s Infectious Disease Research Center. According to recent studies, the antibodies could potentially be used to treat people infected by the coronavirus.
Medicago is partially owned by Philip Morris International, and is part of the company’s new course, based on science, technology, and innovation. PMI acquired a stake in Medicago in 2013, and currently holds approximately one third of the company’s shares. Japan-based Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma owns the remaining two thirds.