UCT and Canadian biopharming group to develop HPV vaccine

15 October 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Graphic of the human papillomavirus, the cause of cervical cancer, by <a href="http://rkm.com.au/" target="_blank">Russell Kightley Media</a>, based in Canberra, Australia.
Graphic of the human papillomavirus, the cause of cervical cancer, by Russell Kightley Media, based in Canberra, Australia.

UCT's Biopharming Research Unit (BRU) has joined forces with Canada-based biopharmaceutical company Medicago to develop a vaccine against human papillomaviruses (HPV), the cause of cervical cancer.

What makes this collaboration remarkable is that the vaccine will be produced in plants, says BRU director Professor Ed Rybicki.

"We're excited and honoured to work with one of the world's most advanced companies in the field of plant-made vaccines," said Rybicki.

Medicago's earlier successes include candidate vaccines against influenza viruses, while the BRU has been at the forefront of HPV vaccine and plant-produced therapeutic research for the past 10 years.

The Canadian organisation is providing funding and some materials for the research, while the BRU will provide the expertise to develop and produce the virus-like particles that will be used as vaccines against HPV.

Marc-André D'Aoust, vice-president of research and innovation at Medicago said: "This collaboration has the potential to bring forth novel vaccine solutions against human papillomaviruses that provide improved protection from the wide variety of circulating virus strains."

Plant-made therapeutics

Recently, plant-based manufacturing technologies have gained popularity as a rapid and cost-effective way to produce antibodies, vaccines and a range of other therapeutic products for human use.

Plants make particularly effective factories for biological products: they are easy and inexpensive to grow and maintain, and can produce complex biological products quickly and reliably, Rybicki explained.

Notable international successes include the development of Medicago's clinical stage influenza vaccines, with others developing a therapeutic for Gaucher disease, anti-Ebola virus antibodies, and experimental patient-specific non-Hodgkin lymphoma vaccines.

Long-standing expertise

The BRU has been perfecting their process for years and was the first group worldwide to produce significant amounts of HPV protein in plants, Rybicki added.

The unit's name, however, is new. It was changed in 2013 to reflect a shift away from basic virology and vaccine research, towards more applicable research into production of human and animal therapeutics in plants.

The group has around 17 years' experience in producing proteins and virus-like particles in plants. Aside from HPV, the group has also worked on human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), avian and human influenza, as well as animal viruses such as bluetongue virus, and beak and feather disease virus.

Cutting-edge vaccine research

Medicago works to develop novel plant-based vaccines and other therapeutic products for human use. During the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the company produced an experimental vaccine in 19 days, a previously unheard-of achievement.

In 2012, Medicago demonstrated its capability to use plants efficiently by producing 10 million doses of pandemic influenza vaccine in a month for the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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