Researchers in Spain use biotech to produce SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in plants

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RESEARCHERS María Coca and Juan José López-Moya from the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) at the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG) are using their expertise in plant biotechnology and virology to produce SARS-CoV-2 antigens to be used in vaccine development.

The researchers will experiment with different expression systems from plants and have formed a team including an immunologist expert in coronavirus.

In 2019, María Coca successfully engineered a plant virus to produce antifungal proteins inside plant leaves. This same strategy could be now used to produce SARS-CoV-2 antigens, not only in Nicotiana benthamiana, but also in lettuce plants. According to María Coca, antigen production in lettuce could make it possible to test for oral immunization.

“The production systems we propose would overcome some of the problems associated with other vaccine production systems, such as the difficulties to escalate production, or the need to isolate the antigen and to purify it. Plant systems are also free of other human pathogens, and, the production would be safe at a much lower cost in terms of time and money,” explains María Coca.

Plants can be grown easily in developing countries that lack sophisticated protein production methods, therefore contributing large-scale solutions to this global crisis. CRAG researchers have also conducted the adaptation of plant-derived technologies to other platforms that can be adapted for the production of SARS-CoV-2 antigens, such as fast-growing yeast cultures where they have successfully produced antifungal compounds. With these approaches, SARS-CoV-2 antigens could be produced in a matter of days at industrial scales.