Growing Vaccinated Fruits and Vegetables

He didn’t start out with bananas, one of the most difficult of all plants to genetically engineer. He began with tobacco, one of the simplest, just to prove out the principle. He had enough success to conclude that he was on the right track.

He moved on to potatoes, and tomatoes, and before leaving Cornell completed very limited clinical trials showing that the desired immune response was produced in both mice and humans. There were no serious side effects, but the subjects had to eat a lot of potatoes, and they had to eat them raw. Cooking the potatoes would break down the proteins that provoke the immune response.

Somehow, the vaccine production has to be beefed up so that no one has to eat a bag of raw potatoes to get inoculated, but researchers believe that’s only a matter of time. Arntzen sees the day when children will be given a medical version of an Oreo cookie, except the white stuff in the middle will be a slice of banana ready to do its part to save the youngster’s life.

Many Steps to Banana Cure

There are, of course, enormous hurdles to overcome before that can happen. Arntzen says any vaccine would have to be approved in this country before it could be tried oversees to avoid the appearance of using poor children as research subjects. That will involve costly and time-consuming clinical trials.

And there is the problem of maintaining quality. William H. R. Langridge of Loma Linda University has stressed that it will be important to ensure that plants produce the vaccines in the right concentrations so that the dosage is consistent and correct. Langridge is working on an edible vaccine for cholera.

Too much vaccine would have just the opposite of the desired effect, creating tolerance of the disease instead of provoking an immune response, Arntzen says.

That means crops used to produce vaccines would have to be isolated from other crops and kept out the food chain. That could be done, Arntzen suggests, by making them sterile and unable to reproduce, and perhaps a lot less tasty than food crops.

The beauty of the concept, however, lies in the fact that vaccines could be homegrown in crops around the world, involving local agencies and companies.

“I’d like to ship seedlings” all over the world, where they could be grown and harvested as part of a local pharmaceutical operation, Arntzen says.

No Economic Push

The last thing he wants to see is all of this just chalked up to more research.

“I don’t want this to end up as a standard academic lab that publishes a few papers and the dies,” Arntzen says. He and others fear that if they don’t do it, nobody will.

For pharmaceutical companies, there’s more money to be found in reducing male baldness than in producing vaccines, he adds.

“I know no pharmaceutical company is going to do it because there’s no driving economic reason for them to do it,” Arntzen says. “So I’m going to spend the next five years trying to make it so easy that anybody can do it.”

If he succeeds, much of the world will see more of their infants live past childhood.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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