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Plant-based Zika vaccine: Safer, cheaper and more potent

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A worker sprays for mosquitoes in Oaxaca. Photo: Getty

Since emerging as a worldwide threat two years ago, the mosquito-borne Zika virus has infected millions as it swept across the Americas.

Today cases are way down, and there has been a flurry of heroic scientific efforts to actually stop Zika.

Among them, Arizona State University has taken a major step forward in boosting Zika prevention efforts.

ASU Biodesign Institute scientist Qiang “Shawn” Chen has led his research team to develop the world’s first plant-based Zika vaccine that could be more potent, safer and cheaper.

“Our vaccine offers improved safety and potentially lowers the production costs more than any other current alternative, and with equivalent effectiveness,” said Chen, a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy and professor in the School of Life Sciences. “We are very excited about these results.”

Several potential Zika vaccines have had promising results in early animal and human tests. But there are no licensed vaccines or therapeutics available to combat Zika.

Chen may have come up with a better vaccine candidate based on a key Zika protein. Chen is a viral expert who has worked for the past decade on plant-based therapeutics and vaccines against West Nile virus and dengue fever, which come from the same Zika family, called flaviviruses.

They first grew the envelope protein in bacteria, then switched to prepare the DIII protein domain in tobacco plants.

Producing plant-based vaccines, especially in tobacco plants, is old hat for ASU researchers like Chen. For more than a decade, they’ve been producing low-cost vaccines in plants to fight devastating infectious diseases in the developing world.

It’s the same approach ASU plant research pioneer Charles Arntzen used when he played a key role in developing ZMapp, the experimental treatment used during the Ebola outbreak.

Artntzen’s Biodesign colleagues, including Chen, Hugh Mason and Tsafrir Mor, have continued to pursue plant-based vaccines and therapeutics to combat West Nile virus, dengue fever, nerve agents and even cancer.

About 12 new cases a week are reported in Yucatán, indicating that Zika is slowing, but still a health risk. The epidemic that authorities projected in 2015 has yet to materialize with the notable exception of some Caribbean islands, particularly Puerto Rico, which has been a Zika hot spot with 37,000 cases.

Sources: Arizona State University, Baja Insider

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