Edible Immunizations

What is one way in which plants and genetics could team together to improve health and medicine? What is one way to eliminate the death of millions of children worldwide from preventable diseases? Those questions were posed in 1991 by the World Health Organization (WHO) to challenge scientists to develop a “simpler, safer, cheaper way to vaccinate children.”

Millions of children, particularly those living in impoverished countries of the world, fail to be immunized against diphtheria, pertussis, polio, measles, tetanus and tuberculosis. Many of these poorer countries lack the ability to purchase the vaccines or lack the ability to successfully transport them to remote locations. Lack of refrigeration is another major obstacle in providing this needed medical service.

To address the challenge by the WHO, Dr. Charles Arntzen at Texas A & M University in the early 1990’s, investigated the possibility of using genetically engineered plants to yield vaccines that would be inexpensive, could be eaten and would require no refrigeration. The advantages of such a discovery would be tremendous!

During the last 10 years much work has gone into this project and although success has been realized in both animal and human testing, many details remain to be investigated:

What plants would be ideal for this vaccine production? At present, potatoes are most often used because they can be stored for long periods without refrigeration and cooking does not destroy or denature the vaccine. Other plants being considered are bananas, tomatoes, peanuts, corn and soybeans. Can food vaccines taken by a mother be transferred to her baby through breast-feeding? How do you determine the most effective dose and what is the best way to package the vaccine? How do you stimulate the plant cells to produce sufficient quantities of the vaccine?

Continuing to work on and solving these issues would prevent the suffering and death of many of the world’s children.