Household plants could hold the answer to eradicating a disease that has been paralysing people worldwide since the 1800’s.
Scientists in Norfolk have developed a polio vaccine in a breakthrough trial that not only has the potential to transform how pharmaceutical companies make vaccines, but is “paving the way” in wiping it off the face of the earth.
Although there hasn’t been a case of polio in the UK since the mid nineties, the infection is still found in other parts of the world and could risk being brought back to Britain.
This new approach, devised by the John Innes Centre, is particularly exciting for the World Health Organisation because it does not require scientists to grow live versions of the virus (to inject into people) so lessens the risk of it escaping from the laboratory.
Instead the method uses virus-like particles (VLPs) - non pathogenic mimics of poliovirus - that look like viruses but are biologically engineered without a nucleic acid (that allows them to replicate) making them non-infectious.
Then when the VLPs are transferred into a human, they still make the immune system react and create immunity, but without the risks associated with stronger versions of the virus.
Using a unique system known as ‘Leaf Expression Systems Hypertrans transient expression’ (quite a mouthful), the VLPs are grown in plants instead of animals, which makes the process cheap, easy and quick, according to the team.
Professor Lomonossoff, who worked on the project, said: “This is an incredible collaboration involving plant science, animal virology and structural biology. The question for us now is how to scale it up -we don’t want to stop at a lab technique.”
They also believe their approach could be used to react to Zika or Ebola.
“The beauty of this system of growing non-pathogenic virus mimics in plants, is that it boosts our ability to scale-up the production of vaccine candidates to combat emerging threats to human health,” said Lomonossoff.