A New Manufacturing Approach to Vaccine Production

  • Posted on 16 March, 2020

Professor Richard Kitney discusses vaccine production using synthetic biology.

So, the major topic of the moment is coronavirus, to which, as we know, there is no immunity. The race is on to find an effective vaccine. Laboratories around the world are in a race to find such a vaccine. Current predictions by some labs state that there could be a vaccine for coronavirus in human clinical trials within a few months - but this is not the end of the story. A very important question is once a vaccine is found how long will it take to produce in quantity, so that enough doses can be produced on the scale of flu vaccines?

We do have some knowledge of this. In a Daily Telegraph article on the 25th March 2015, the journalist maintained that Ministers had known for about a year of a dangerous new strain of flu (working closely with the WHO). The article concluded that with current production methods it takes about 9 months to produce 10 million doses of three strain flu vaccine. Another worrying fact is that is the winter of 2017/18 two out of the three flu strains that had been identified in the Southern Hemisphere winter, and likely to be dominant in the Northern winter, had been incorporated into that year’s flu vaccine. But they were found to be the wrong strains. The problem was that it took nine months to produce the appropriate number of doses for the UK population - and it was already too late.

There is, presumably, the same problem with a vaccine for coronavirus - even when it has been developed and tested. So, is there another solution? The answer is potentially yes. Professor George Lomonossoff of the John Innes Centre for Agri science near Cambridge has developed a scientific method, based in synthetic biology, that has great potential. He discovered that rapidly multiplying a little-known plant virus (cowpea mosaic virus, CPMV) in greenhouse grown plants is a solution to flu vaccine production. CPMV is used to produce a non-infective viral shell called a virus like particle (VLP). Genetic information from the human virus, in this case influenza, decorates the shell with influenza surface proteins.

The methodology has been commercialised by a Canadian company called Medicago. The company has a wholly owned subsidiary, Medicago USA, that is located in the Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina. It has had a manufacturing facility there since 2010. According to their website, the company starts with the virus-like particles (VLPs), which forms part of the Lomonossoff method. They then manufacture large quantities of the vaccine in the leaves of tobacco plants. The technology platform is said to lend itself to the mass production of seasonal and pandemic vaccines. Let’s hope that the company’s technology will work for the production of a coronavirus vaccine because their original prediction was that flu vaccine could be produced in quantity - not in 9 months, but 1 month.

But there is another interesting, fundamental point. In many, if not most, areas of synthetic biology the basic problem is scale-up. How do you go from the lab to effective industrial production? The interesting thing about agriculture is that it can be a massively parallel process. As every farmer knows, if you want a bigger crop you plant more fields. Presumably, this also applies to the Medicago method of manufacture.

One final interesting fact is that Medicago’s manufacturing facility in North Carolina was funded through a partnership with DARPA. Another example of the importance of DARPA in technology development in general and synthetic biology in particular.

At SynbiTECH 2020, the production of vaccines will be addressed by a number of companies. Come and join us