PlantPharm BioMed Ltd.
Innovation: Plant-based, edible vaccines
Founder: Robert Britt
A team of scientists at Delavan-based PlantPharm BioMed Ltd. are developing edible vaccines that could be used to treat viruses affecting both animals and humans.
The company has identified 42 vaccines and 550 pharmaceuticals that can now be grown in plants.
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“It’s not just one drug, it’s not just one vaccine, it’s the possibility that we can make lots and lots of different vaccines,” said Robert Britt, founder and chief executive officer of PlantPharm.
The company’s latest effort is an edible vaccine that can be used to address the African swine fever in pigs. ASF is of particular concern in China, having reduced the country’s pig population by more than 50 million in 2018, according to a report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. ASF is 100% lethal.
“It’s something that, if it came to the United States, would wipe out a big portion of our swine,” Britt said.
While PlantPharm was officially founded in 2008, the idea behind the company began more than 20 years ago when Britt purchased a Chinese patent that had been awarded a China Patent Gold Medal. The patented technology later morphed into the biopharmaceutical production technology that PlantPharm uses today.
PlantPharm’s edible vaccines work through the mucosal system, which is where viruses attack first. This makes the treatment more effective. The ASF vaccine will be a shelf-stable, dry supplement and administered by mixing it into the pigs’ food – no injection required. Entire herds of animals can be vaccinated effectively this way. Britt said edible vaccines could be used for animals ranging from deer to birds, which are also a species of concern due to the ongoing bird flu.
PlantPharm transforms specific plants into “vaccine factories” by introducing antigens into the plant cells. Those plants are then multiplied and grown to maturity in controlled-atmosphere conditions. PlantPharm has a certified laboratory in Delavan where scientists grow batches of the injected plants. The vaccines are scalable into millions of shelf-stable, edible doses.
“They’re surrogate mothers, more or less, to a vaccine that we inject in the plant and (then) multiply it through the plant,” Britt said. “It’s a unique way of manufacturing vaccines – in fact it’s probably the best way to manufacture vaccines because it’s safest.”
The company has also worked on a potato-grown hepatitis B vaccine, which underwent one successful human clinical trial by the Food and Drug Administration and was approved for a second. PlantPharm did research and development on an edible COVID-19 vaccine for humans, but the National Institutes of Health went with the mRNA type of vaccine. PlantPharm’s was a DNA vaccine. After the decision by the National Institutes of Health, PlantPharm shifted its focus to the varying animal populations dealing with mutated strains of COVID-19. PlantPharm lists HPV, RSV, meningitis, malaria and cancer vaccines as additional “vaccine targets.”
All the vaccines that PlantPharm scientists are working on are still in the research and development phase. Britt said the company can put a vaccine together in about a year following the necessary testing and approvals. Most competitors in the biopharmaceutical space are still in basic research and development stages, while PlantPharm is ready to produce product for FDA licensing.
PlantPharm’s leadership has been mainly bootstrapping the company up to this point, aside from the roughly $1.5 million in NIH grants used to support its hepatitis B vaccine clinical trials. Company leadership is now seeking outside investments for the first time to support clinical trials for its other vaccines.
Britt envisions the edible vaccines being available through veterinary offices and government programs.
“There’s a lot of different ways to be able to stop (viruses) before they happen in a big way,” Britt said. “There are protections that can be made, and we’re a real reasonable source because we know how to make the edible variety of these vaccines.”