Can one grow Covid vaccines? Researchers say lettuce, spinach can replace the traditional mRNA shots

Written by Sharangee Dutta | Edited by Avik Roy, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Sep 22, 2021 10:47 PM IST

The research team from University of California, Riverside, among others, are focusing on using chloroplasts that plants use to convert sunlight into energy, to produce edible plant-based mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.

It’s the end of 2021, which means more than two years of the world combatting the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak. While several anti-Covid vaccines have come up and vaccination is underway across the globe, they come with their set of challenges.

The scientists said that they are testing the plant-based vaccine approach with spinach and lettuce, with a long-term agenda of people growing these plants in their gardens.
The scientists said that they are testing the plant-based vaccine approach with spinach and lettuce, with a long-term agenda of people growing these plants in their gardens.

Aimed at addressing such challenges, scientists of the University of California, Riverside are currently studying the possibility of transforming edible plants into mRNA (Messenger RNA) technology vaccines against Covid-19.

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According to a press release issued by the university, mRNA vaccines come with the mandate of being kept in a cold environment for their stability to be maintained during transport and storage. Coronavirus vaccines based on this technology, including Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, function by teaching the human body cells to identify and safeguard the system against infectious ailments.

What plants are the scientists using?

The UC Riverside scientists of this project aim to eradicate the mandate of keeping vaccines in cold conditions – as required by mRNA vaccines. The team is focusing on projecting three vital matters – first “DNA containing the mRNA vaccines can be successfully delivered into the part of plant cells;” second, edible plants can produce adequate mRNA just like a traditional jab; and third, determining the accurate dosage of the plant-based vaccines.

“Ideally, a single plant would produce enough mRNA to vaccinate a single person,” Associate professor in UC Riverside’s department of botany and plant sciences, and the head of the research, Juan Pablo Giraldo said.

He is working with scientists from UC San Diego and Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania.

Also Read | India to not buy Pfizer, Moderna Covid-19 vaccines as local production jumps: Report

Giraldo explained that the team is testing the plant-based vaccine approach with spinach and lettuce, with a long-term agenda of people growing these plants in their gardens. “Farmers could also eventually grow entire fields of it,” he added in the release.

How are the scientists working?

The primary element in this research, said Giraldo, is chloroplast – the small organs in plant cells that transform sunlight into energy for the plant to use. Giraldo explained that chloroplasts are “tiny, solar-powered factories” that produce sugar and other molecules.

“They’re also an untapped source for making desirable molecules,” he added.

Earlier, the lead researcher had shown, the release noted, that it’s possible for chloroplasts to express genes that are not a natural part of the plant. Giraldo and his colleagues did this independent research by sending foreign genetic material into plant cells inside a protective gear.

"Our idea is to repurpose naturally occurring nanoparticles, namely plant viruses, for gene delivery to plants," Nicole Steinmetz, a UC San Diego professor of nanoengineering said. "Some engineering goes into this to make the nanoparticles go to the chloroplasts and also to render them non-infectious toward the plants,” she was quoted as saying in the release.

Why are the scientists working to produce plant-based mRNA vaccines?

Giraldo said that having the opportunity to work towards creating edible plant-based mRNA vaccines is the “culmination of a dream.” He added that the goal behind his work in nanotechnology was to create “new technology solutions” not just for food but also for high-value products like pharmaceuticals.

The lead researcher is separately co-leading another project pertaining to nanomaterials for delivering nitrogen – a fertiliser, directly to chloroplasts that are the most significant ingredient for plants to function. For this project, Giraldo and his team has received a grant of $1.6 million from the National Science Foundation to develop a targeted nitrogen delivery technology.

“I’m very excited about all of this research,” Giraldo said, adding that he thinks it could have an enormous effect on the lives of people.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation has also given a grant of $500,000 to Giraldo and his team for the plant-based mRNA vaccine manufacture.

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