Plant-based vaccines challenge big pharma for $3.8 billion flu market

Plant-based vaccines challenge big pharma for $3.8 billion flu market
A worker inspects the Nicotiana benthamiana plants at Medicago greenhouse in Quebec City in this file photo taken August 13, 2014.

NEW YORK - Two tiny companies are preparing to challenge some of the world's largest drug makers in the battle for dominance in the US$3 billion (S$3.8 billion) global market for influenza vaccines, armed with little more than tiny tobacco plants.

The use of plants to produce life-saving pharmaceuticals captured global attention when it was revealed that the Ebola drug ZMapp is produced in the leaves of tobacco plants.

Even as Ebola cases multiply in West Africa, a far greater market for plant-based biopharmaceuticals will likely be influenza vaccines used to fight pandemics, industry experts said. Making vaccines from plants may turn out to be faster and cheaper than current methods which use chicken eggs to grow the virus needed to make the vaccines.

Leading producers such as GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Sanofi SA need six months to produce flu vaccine once scientists identify the dominant virus expected to circulate during flu season. Vaccine production from tobacco plants by Quebec City-based Medicago or Bryan, Texas-based Caliber Biotherapeutics could do it in weeks.

"Seven to 10 years from now, plants might be the dominant vaccine-production system," said Brett Giroir, an M.D. and CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center in Bryan. Texas A&M has one of three US facilities tasked by the government with being ready to produce and deliver 50 million doses of flu vaccine in just 12 weeks. It is working with Caliber toward that goal.

If the upstarts succeed, they will make little difference to the tobacco industry, which regards even a $3 billion market as marginal. But they could threaten the pharma giants that dominate flu vaccine production - or be gobbled up by them.

Medicago is now testing its flu vaccine in elderly people, who are most at risk, and plans to launch a large human trial in 2016. "We hope to hit the market in 2019," said Jean-Luc Martre, director of government affairs.

Tobacco plants could be enlisted in the fight against flu even sooner if a pandemic hit. The 50 million doses that labs like Texas A&M's pledged they'd be able to produce in a few months can't be manufactured in today's egg-based systems.

"If there is a need for it that requires plant-based production, we'd turn to Caliber," said Giroir, referring to an accelerated vaccine-production schedule to counter a flu pandemic.

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