How An Ancient Australian Plant Could Help Produce A Coronavirus Vaccine

How An Ancient Australian Plant Could Help Produce A Coronavirus Vaccine
Image: Queensland University of Technology

While scientists around the world are focusing on the development of a coronavirus vaccine, the next hurdle is its mass global production. A Queensland study thinks an ancient tobacco plant found only in Australia might be the key.

It all comes down to a little known plant found only in northern Australia ” the Nicotiana benthamiana.

A coronavirus vaccine biofactory

Professor Peter Waterhouse and his team at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have been working on using the plant to help produce vaccines for years but the coronavirus pandemic had shifted their priorities.

While the plant couldn’t be used as a vaccine itself, Professor Waterhouse told Gizmodo Australia the plant’s unique properties could help aid the production of a vaccine quickly and cheaply when that’s developed.

“Plants don’t actually make antibodies naturally, it’s a thing animals do and plants don’t,” Professor Waterhouse said to Gizmodo Australia over the phone.

“But the amazing thing about this particular plant that we’ve been working on is that if you give it the right instructions in the form of DNA, it will do something, it will, it can produce an antibody that you can use as a human antibody or for a vaccine.”

From a plant smoothie into a possible coronavirus vaccine

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie or video game but Professor Waterhouse said the Nicotiana benthamiana could work as a little biofactory for any potential vaccines in a process sometimes referred to as ‘pharming’.

“You put the DNA instructions into a bacterium and you squirt this bacterium into the leaves of a plant and then it takes it up, follows the instructions basically and makes you your antibody or your vaccine,” Professor Waterhouse said.

Once that’s done, it takes around five days for the plant to start producing the antibodies, according to Professor Waterhouse, and then you’d have to purify it to remove any unwanted plant proteins created in the production.

“You just make it like a smoothie, you put it in a blender and you mash up the leaves, and let the fiber spin off,” Professor Waterhouse said.

“What’s left in the solution is your antibody or your vaccine.”

Image: Erika Fish/Supplied

Unlike animals, plants can’t spread diseases to humans

He points out the good thing about working with plants, unlike animals, is that there’s no pathogens that infect both plants and humans so adverse effects aren’t a major concern ” it’s just allergens that would need to be considered.

The process is certainly experimental but its effectiveness has already been tested with the Ebola outbreak. Zmapp was a drug used to treat Ebola patients in 2015 and was produced using the pharming method. It was later found to be ineffective against the virus but the method of production using the Nicotiana showed it could produce potential vaccines in real-life scenarios.

“There is always a question of whether these people were gonna recover from Ebola anyway,” Professor Waterhouse said, adding the recipients were treated and fully recovered.

Outside of Ebola, he said a range of other vaccines, including ones for malaria and hepatitis, would look to test the plant’s ability to mass produce safe cures.

Because of this interest, the QUT team is publicly releasing the Nicotiana‘s genome sequence so that researchers around the world can trial production of any vaccine candidates with its unique properties.

“Instead of keeping this secret and publishing it first, which is what you want in academia… we thought the situation was so serious that we should give this information to any institution or researcher that’s working on COVID-19,” Professor Waterhouse said.

Once a vaccine is eventually proven to be effective against COVID-19, the world will look to production to ensure everyone can be treated as quickly as possible before resuming regular life. If an Australian plant biofactory helps that process tick along quicker and cheaper, that’s a hope we can all hold onto.

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