Chilean scientists working to develop edible tomato vaccine

The research being conducted at Santiago’s Universidad Católica, the first of its kind in South America, will make tomato seeds vehicles for immunization against Hepatitis C and Cholera.

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Scientists at Santiago’s Universidad Católica are currently designing a vaccine for Cholera and Hepatitis C that would be administered through the seeds of a tomato. This vaccine will be the first of its kind developed in South America, with scientists in the US, Japan, Mexico and Australia the only others working on similar projects.

Two primary benefits make this type of vaccine attractive. First, administering a vaccine via food eliminates the discomfort and occasional fear experienced by patients receiving shots. Second, food-borne vaccines will be considerably less expensive on the market.

Traditional vaccines require rigidly controlled temperatures for conservation and sterile environments for administration. In a report for La Tercera, Patricio Arce, one of the scientists leading the investigation, said that the difficulties of administering the traditional vaccine account for 70 to 80 percent of its total cost.

Historically, vaccines have functioned by introducing small amounts of a given bacteria or virus into a patients system, encouraging the body to develop antibodies that recognize the illness and can combat future attacks. More recently, this has been accomplished by introducing selected proteins into the system to generate the same effect.

Food-borne vaccines will function using a similar principal. Scientists isolate the genetic codes that produce the proteins used today for vaccines, in this case the vaccines for Hepatitis C and Cholera. Once these codes have been isolated, they will be introduced into the genetic material of the plant, which is stored in its seeds. Stored within these seeds, then, will be the identical proteins used in traditional injected vaccines.

Preserving the vaccine in seeds eliminates many of the problems related to storage that elevate costs. Much like any ordinary seeds, those under development at Universidad Católica would require protection from humidity and excessive heat, and would have to be planted separately from ordinary tomatoes to prevent cross-breeding. The considerable infrastructure necessary for safely maintaining traditional vaccines could be virtually eliminated.

With the project now more than half complete, scientists are preparing for the first round of testing which will be performed on rats in 2011. Assuming the testing goes according to plan, the product will be ready for human testing by 2013 and available on the market soon after.

This post is also available in Spanish