Posts Tagged ‘biofarming’

Plant-made antibodies used as therapy for Ebola in humans: post-exposure prophylaxis goes green!

5 August, 2014
Ebola virus budding from an infected cell.  Courtesy of Russell Kightley Media

Ebola virus budding from an infected cell.
Courtesy of Russell Kightley Media

Yes, I know you fans of ViroBlogy like Ebola – and just coincidentally, I was desperately trying to finish a review* on “Plant-based vaccines against viruses” against a backdrop of an out-of-control Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when three different people emailed me different links to news of use of a plant-made monoclonal antibody cocktail.  I immediately included it in my review – and I am publishing an excerpt here, for informations’ sake.  Enjoy!

Plantibodies against Ebola

The production of anti-Ebola virus antibodies has recently been explored in plants: this could yet become an important part of the arsenal to prevent disease in healthcare workers, given that at the time of writing an uncontrolled Ebola haemorrhagic fever outbreak was still raging in West Africa, and the use of experimental solutions was being suggested (Senthilingam, 2014). For example, use of a high-yielding geminivirus-based transient expression system in N benthamiana that is particularly suited to simultaneous expression of several proteins allowed expression of a MAb (6DB) known to protect animals from Ebola virus infection, at levels of 0.5 g/kg biomass (Chen et al., 2011). The same group also used the same vector system (described in detail here (Rybicki and Martin, 2014)) in lettuce to produce potentially therapeutic MAbs against both Ebola and West Nile viruses (Lai et al., 2012).

A more comprehensive investigation was reported recently, of both plant production of Mabs and post-exposure prophylaxis of Ebola virus infection in rhesus macaques (Olinger et al., 2012). Three Ebola-specific mouse-human chimaeric MAbs (h-13F6, c13C6, and c6D8; the latter two both neutralising) were produced in whole N benthamiana plants via agroinfilration of magnICON TMV-derived viral vectors. A mixture of the three MAbs – called MB-003 – given as a single dose of 16.7 mg/kg per Mab 1 hour post-infection followed by doses on days 4 and 8, protected 3 of 3 macaques from lethal challenge with 1 000 pfu of Ebola virus. The researchers subsequently showed significant protection with MB-003 treatment given 24 or 48 hours post-infection, with four of six monkeys testing surviving, compared to none in two controls. All surviving animals treated with MB-003 experienced insignificant if any viraemia, and negligible clinical symptoms compared to the control animals. A significant finding was that the plant-produced MAbs were three times as potent as the CHO cell-produced equivalents – a clear case of plant production leading to “biobetters”. A follow-up of this work investigated efficacy of treatment with MB-003 after confirmation of infection in rhesus macaques, “according to a diagnostic protocol for U.S. Food and Drug Administration Emergency Use Authorization” (Pettitt et al., 2013). In this experiment 43% of treated animals survived, whereas all controls tested here and previously with the same challenge protocol died from the infection.

In news from just prior to submission of this article, a report quoted as coming from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases states that two US healthcare workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia were treated with a cocktail of anti-Ebola Mabs called ZMapp – described as a successor to MB-003 – developed by Mapp Pharmaceutical of San Diego, and manufactured by Kentucky BioProcessing (Langreth et al., 2014). Despite being given up to nine days post-infection in one case, it appears to have been effective (Wilson and Dellorto, 2014).

A novel application of the same technology was also used to produce an Ebola immune complex (EIC) in N benthamiana, consisting of the Ebola envelope glycoprotein GP1 fused to the C-terminus of the heavy chain of the humanised 6D8 MAb, which binds a linear epitope on GP1. Geminivirus vector-mediated co-expression of the GP1-HC fusion and the 6D8 light chain produced assembled immunoglobulin, which was purified by protein G affinity chromatography. The resultant molecules bound the complement factor C1q, indicating immune complex formation. Subcutaneous immunisation of mice with purified EIC elicited high level anti-GP1 antibody production, comparable to use of GP1 VLPs (Phoolcharoen et al., 2011). This is the first published account of an Ebola virus candidate vaccine to be produced in plants.


Chen, Q., He, J., Phoolcharoen, W., Mason, H.S., 2011. Geminiviral vectors based on bean yellow dwarf virus for production of vaccine antigens and monoclonal antibodies in plants. Human vaccines 7, 331-338.

Lai, H., He, J., Engle, M., Diamond, M.S., Chen, Q., 2012. Robust production of virus-like particles and monoclonal antibodies with geminiviral replicon vectors in lettuce. Plant biotechnology journal 10, 95-104.

Langreth, R., Chen, C., Nash, J., Lauerman, J., 2014. Ebola Drug Made From Tobacco Plant Saves U.S. Aid Workers.

Olinger, G.G., Jr., Pettitt, J., Kim, D., Working, C., Bohorov, O., Bratcher, B., Hiatt, E., Hume, S.D., Johnson, A.K., Morton, J., Pauly, M., Whaley, K.J., Lear, C.M., Biggins, J.E., Scully, C., Hensley, L., Zeitlin, L., 2012. Delayed treatment of Ebola virus infection with plant-derived monoclonal antibodies provides protection in rhesus macaques. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, 18030-18035.

Pettitt, J., Zeitlin, L., Kim do, H., Working, C., Johnson, J.C., Bohorov, O., Bratcher, B., Hiatt, E., Hume, S.D., Johnson, A.K., Morton, J., Pauly, M.H., Whaley, K.J., Ingram, M.F., Zovanyi, A., Heinrich, M., Piper, A., Zelko, J., Olinger, G.G., 2013. Therapeutic intervention of Ebola virus infection in rhesus macaques with the MB-003 monoclonal antibody cocktail. Science translational medicine 5, 199ra113.

Phoolcharoen, W., Bhoo, S.H., Lai, H., Ma, J., Arntzen, C.J., Chen, Q., Mason, H.S., 2011. Expression of an immunogenic Ebola immune complex in Nicotiana benthamiana. Plant biotechnology journal 9, 807-816.

Rybicki, E.P., Martin, D.P., 2014. Virus-Derived ssDNA Vectors for the Expression of Foreign Proteins in Plants. Current topics in microbiology and immunology 375, 19-45.

Senthilingam, M., 2014. Ebola outbreak: Is it time to test experimental vaccines? CNN.

Wilson, J., Dellorto, D., 2014. 9 questions about this new Ebola drug. CNN.

* = which, despite their having commissioned from me, the good folk at “Viruses” an unnamed journal decided “…may not have substantial differences with the reviews you published recently” – and rejected.  I shall have revenge.  Oh, yes…B-)

Plant-Based Vaccines, Antibodies and Biologics 5, Part 4

2 September, 2013

PBVAB 5 Part 4

Sessions 5 – 8

The fifth session on Day 2 was “Antibodies 1” – and who better to kick off, than Rainer Fischer (RWTH / Fraunhofer Institute, Aachen), talking about Pharma-Planta – The European project to introduce plant-derived monoclonal antibodies to the clinic’.

One of the most impressive features of the FP6 PharmaPlanta project was its sheer size: 28 academic institutions were involved over 7 years, at a cost of €12 million plus €3 million from the Fraunhofer Institute in Aachen.  Their mission was to move molecular farming beyond proofs of concept, and to develop candidate products.  They selected the anti-HIV-1 subtype B MAb 2G12 as their final candidate, but also developed MAbs to rabies and some vaccine candidates.  Importantly, their IP had a Humanitarian Use Commitment: knowledge created was made freely available for humanitarian purposes.

They had a total of 39 postdocs and 8 students trained; they produced 200 peer-reviewed publications consisting of 150 research papers and 50 reviews, and a spin-out company.  The project also helped to develop a South African plant-made MAb production platform.  Their plant-produced 2G12 was the first plant-made MAb in human clinical trials – and went from gene to clinic in just 7 years.  They had also very materially helped the development of the regulatory regime in Europe, from the viewpoint of pharmaceutical guidelines and environmental safety for PMPs.

Rainer Fischer

Rainer Fischer in full flow

The final yield figures for 2G12 were 5 g of 97% pure MAb from 240 kg of transgenic tobacco, with a recovery of 55%.  The product had a better glycosylation homogeneity than CHO cell-produced 2G12.  In clinical trials of the MAb used as a vaginal microbicide, the product was safe and well tolerated with no serious adverse reactions.  There were no anti-Abs found in serum or in the vagina, with no systemic absorption.  The MAb survived for 8 hrs in the vagina, meaning it had serious potential as a microcode.

The project resulted in great human capital, a manufacturing facility at the Fraunhofer IME, and a number of important follow-on projects.  It also opened bottlenecks in regulatory practice, and in clinical trials of PMPs.  There was a pipeline of additional product candidates, eg anti-rabies MAbs.

Important lessons from the project were the following: one should focus early on on the plants used, the expression technology, the threshold level of production, realistic timelines, the plant line and purification process, production issues, QC stability, regulatory contract – FIND A CLINICAL SPONSOR!, set up contractual framework, draft specifications for drugs, contact authorities in countries for manufacture and testing.

Issues such as smart product selection, synthetic biology/host cell line engineering, glycan/protease profile, hi-throughput cloning, selection of elite lines, scale-up automation / vertical farming, downstream processing, regulatory approval had also surfaced, and were important.

For the future, a fully automated vertical farm unit  for seed development was going to come on stream.  They would move from niche production to mainstream production, taking advantage of economies of scale.  Other developments could be designing an optimal host cell line, with fully human glycosylation, and site-directed transgene integration.

Some day someone should write a book about this endeavour – and I think it should be Rainer.

Larry Zeitlin (MAPP Biopharmaceutical) spoke next, on producing monoclonals against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV): the reason for doing this is that RSV is a major pathogen among small children worldwide, and while there are MAb-based therapeutics (eg: Synagis, from MedImmune), with sales in the order of USD 1 billion annually, these cost around USD 5 000 for one treatment for one child – and premature infants or cardiac / respiratorily challenged children required 4-5 monthly doses per RSV season.  Additionally, infection with RSV in the 1st year of life is associated with development of asthma later, so paediatricians were wanting to treat a much wider spectrum of children.

Accordingly, MAPP was making a Synagis equivalent via Icon vectors in N benthamiana for half the cost of goods, which had the same neutralisation ability and same affinity but a different glycosylation profile and shorter half-life.  When tested in cotton rats it was identical in pharmacokinetics and worked as well as Synagis.  An attempt to reduce the interaction of the IgG1-based MAb with the immune system by changing the subtype to IgG2 failed in rates even though it was neutralising, possibly due to there being less ADCC.  Larry mentioned that they could engineer the Fc region with point mutations to significantly extend the half life – and then use this as a scaffold, possibly for some of their other products.

Michael McLean (Univ Guelph, Canada) described his group’s work on a HIV Ab cocktail theoretically capable of neutralising 99% of HIV strains – this was for PlantForm Corp, who had a mandate to produce biosimilars and novel biologics using plants.  The HIV project was focused presently on demonstrating anti-HIV functionality, and at improving glycosylation profiles of a cocktail of b12, 2F5 and 4E10 broad-spectrum anti-HIV MAbs.

They worked with BeYDV-derived, 2-replicon vectors expressing whole MAbs, as well as their own vectors, using the Steinkellner group glycosylation pathway engineered plants.  With 9 days maximum expression period  they could get 1 g/kg maximum yields.  All the MAbs worked fine, with  similar activity in in vitro HIV pseudovirion neutralisation assays.  Using the deltaFX N benth line, they get uniform glycosylation – and add Gal using their own vectors.

Shawn Chen (BioDesign Inst, Arizona State Univ) described their work on a humanized West Nile virus (WNV) therapeutic MAb which protected mice from WNV infection.  They wanted blood-brain barrier (BBB)-permeable bifunctional Abs to extend efficacy, presently limited because of the barrier.  They got 0.3 – 0.5 g/kg yield of a bifunctional MAb which bound the BBB endothelial receptor and virus Ag, using Icon and BeYDV vectors, and showed endocytosis into brain cells.  He also mentioned that they could “tune” glycoforms to change ADCC.


Victor Klimyuk (Icon Genetics GmbH, Germany) presented on ‘Biogeneric antibodies made in plants’: these used a generic IgG1 constant region gene codon-optimised for plants, with add-on variable (V) regions derived from other Abs of different types and specificities.  The first product had been the non-Hodgkin lymphoma personalized MAbs: they had done glycotyping of each NHL MAb, all with the same H but diff L chains, to show these were differently glycosylated – and that all the idiotypes were expressed at very different levels.  Interestingly, expression levels had little to do with occupancy of glycosylation sites – and this occupancy could be tuned by directed point mutations.

They had made analogues of trastuzumab and herceptin, etc – and noted that herceptin analogues differed in potency, and wt plants produced lower levels than their engineered plants.  Rituximab analogues were all the same as the original MAb at day 0 of treatment, but MAbs with no fucose were best at persistence – equal to the original.

Vikram Virdi (VIB, University of Gent, Belgium) described passive immunisation of piglets against enterotoxigenic E coli (ETEC) using llama-derived antibodies produced in Arabidopsis.  This was useful in that it extended the maternally-derived passive immunity.  Their product was a “porcinised camellid Ab” against the major adhesion molecule of ETEC, which should survive the digestive tract.  They made MAbs based on a camellid Vh gene fused to IgG and IgA Fc regions, and expressed them in seeds for a piglet feed challenge.  They got a maximum of 15% TSP expressed in seed, 3% of seed weight.  By triple transformation with the 3 genes required for an IgA analogue (Vh:Fc, J chain and secretory component) and then selfing and breeding plant lines, they got in planta assembly of a sIgA analogue (0.2% seed weight).  This worked in inhibiting attachment of  bacteria, so they upscaled production and tested a cocktail of IgG vs IgA types.  The latter was best, with a swift decline of bacterial shedding with a 4  x lower dose than for IgG.  There was also a better weight gain for IgA treated piglets.

Thomas de Meyer (VIB-PSB/University of Gent) compared production of bivalent camellid VHH-derived MAbs in Arabidopsis, N benthamiana and Pichia pastoris, given that the VHH Fc enhanced functional affinity, and led to longer serum 1/2 life, and was a convenient protein tag. They compared VHH and VHH-Fc MAbs with 4 fusions, including anti-globulin, anti-albumin, and anti-GFP.  The products were stable in seed production (with KDEL) in Arabidopsis and also N benthamiana, and  Pichia secreted the products.  They got yields of 1.5 – 27% TSP, 0.1 to 0.82 g/kg in plants, and with Pichia, 15 – 30 mg/l culture.

The MAbs had different size profiles from the different hosts, though all were bivalent VHH, and N benthamiana and Pichia products were fully glycosylated.  Several of the Fc-type MAbs outperformed the VHHs in ELISA.

Overall, it was obvious that expression of a wide variety of antibodies in plants is a maturing technology: yields are high, of antibodies whose glycosylation and retention profiles can be handily engineered, and which perorm equivalently or better than their conventional homologues in in vitro and in vivo assays.

Go Green, he said, not quietly…B-)

PBVAB 5 – Part 3

21 August, 2013

PBVAB 5 Verona, June 2013 – Part 3

Technically, Sue Huddy’s piece should have been Part 3; however, it reports things that happened after what I am reporting on, so I’ll keep that label!

This post will report on Sessions 3 & 4, namely, Technology Advances and Perspectives.

I opened Session 3 with a talk on ‘Virus-derived ssDNA vectors for the expression of foreign proteins in plants’, focusing mainly on geminiviruses (naturally).  I wrote this a couple of years ago as a chapter for a book which seemed to not be forthcoming; however, I was assured during my talk by Yuri Gleba – the co-Editor with Kenneth Palmer of a “Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology” issue on “Plant Viral Vectors” – that this offering is now in fact available, so here’s a link for anyone who wants to buy it.

Current Topics in Microbiology and Immunology 2011,

Virus-Derived ssDNA Vectors for the Expression of Foreign Proteins in Plants

Edward P. RybickiDarrin P. Martin

Plant viruses with ssRNA genomes provide a unique opportunity for generating expression vehicles for biopharming in plants, as constructs containing only the replication origin, with the replication-associated protein (Rep) gene provided in cis or in trans, can be replicationally amplified in vivo by several orders of magnitude, with significant accompanying increases in transcription and expression of gene(s) of interest. Appropriate replicating vectors or replicons may be derived from several different generic geminiviruses (family Geminiviridae) or nanoviruses (family Nanoviridae), for potential expression of a wide range of single or even multiple products in a wide range of plant families. The use of vacuum or other infiltration of whole plants by Agrobacterium tumefaciens suspensions has allowed the development of a set of expression vectors that rival the deconstructed RNA virus vectors in their yield and application, with some potential advantages over the latter that still need to be explored. Several modern applications of ssDNA plant vectors and their future potential will be discussed.

I noted that several firms are already using geminivirus-derived expression technology – like Kentucky Bioprocessing, who offer use of it as a service, and Medicago Inc, who use it in manufacturing vaccine products – and that it has considerable potential for improvement.  There is also the possibility of using other ssDNA virus-derived vectors, including from bacteria.

E.V. Sheshukova (N.I. Vavilov Institute of General Genetics RAS, Moscow) followed up with an account of how the use of antisense RNA to plant death factor (PDF) could modulate PDF level so as to avoid the necrotisation caused by rapid protein over-expression.  Their group used a TMV-based vector to co-express an antisense with the gene of interest, and got 4-5-fold increase in protein expression, equivalent to using the silencing suppressor p19 from a tombusvirus.

Diego Orzaez (IPMCP-CSIC, Valencia, Spain) spoke next, on the same technology I have previously described (with beautiful pictures from Diego) here: that is, the enabling of tools for multigene engineering of plants – and specifically in this case, the elegant use of superinfection exclusion phenomenon seen with RNA plant virus-derived vectors that are capable of movement, for the expression of polyclonal antibody mixtures in plant leaves.  They had successfully shown expression of 300+ individual clones from a camel VHH clonal library derived against a mixture of 3 snake venoms, in a mosaic on a single leaf.  This was seriously impressive for me: imagine, polyclonal “sera” from a leaf!

Diego noted that the FDA allows the 2-animal rule for products like antivenin, and things used for biodefence: that is, an efficacy trial in an animal, followed by Phase 1 trial in humans (=safety).  This could help expedite approval of such products.

We discussed the paper previously blogged on from this group in Journal Club today, incidentally, to much appreciation of the truly excellent work, and the colour Figures.  Thanks, Richard!

Reza Saberianfar (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Ontario) described their investigations of protein body biogenesis in N benthamiana.  They had looked mainly at hydrophobin and elastin fusion proteins, in order to overcome the joint bottlenecks of inadequate accumulation, and difficulties in purification of recombinant proteins from plants.  He noted that hydrophobin and elastin PBs were different sizes: they had used protoplasts of infiltrated leaves and confococal microscopy and Imaris software to find every PB in individual cells, to determine that  shows hydrophobin-based PBs were 1-2 um, and ELP-based were 2-3 um in diameter, for the same amount of protein.  PBs made from  hydrophobin and ELP-linked proteins shared the same ER origin, but Zera-based PBs had a different origin and Zera fusions did not need a KDEL for ER retention.  An interesting observation was that PBs could form in the ER in the absence of fusion tags if expression levels were high.  One could also increase the expression of other proteins by coexpressing them with a fusion protein, as they get incorporated into PBs anyway – eg: EPO.

Lauri Reuter (VTT-Technical Research Centre, Finland) continued in the theme of fusion proteins with a talk on the production of hydrophobin fusions in tobacco BY-2 suspension cultured cells.  It was interesting to hear that WAVE bioreactors did not work well because they did not shake fast enough, but that conventional steel bioreactors did – with capacities of 20 – 600 litre, and even up to 20 m3.  The cells are apparently surprisingly tolerant to shear stresses, and yields of GFP::hydrophobin fusion from 600 litre reactors were as good or better as from a 50 ml shake flask – at 300 mg/litre.  Purification was simple, in that reactors could be pumped out onto a filter, and the cell “cake” pressed dry – for subsequent lyophilisation and storage at room temperature, for example.  French pressing of fresh cells was also an option.  Hydrophobin fusions allowed aqueous 2-phase separations, for simple and rapid enrichment.  Inclusion of a Tobacco etch virus self-cleaving motif allowed removal of the hydrophobin.

hphobinThe “Perspectives” Session was notable for two talks, and a proposal: the latter was by Julian Ma for a “Society for Molecular Farming”, which was well supported and will probably kick off sometime this year.

Jim Larrick (Panorama Research, Mountain View, California) gave a typically eclectic, wide-ranging and highly enthusiastic talk on ‘Anti-fragility: Big picture issues in pharmaceutical development’.  He used the “Black Swan” analogy repeatedly to explain how the enterprise funding and pharma research sectors embodied fragile or anti-fragile thinking – with the observation that it was easier to resist black swans (eg: the unexpected) with a raft of small projects, than to have a few big ones.  He also pointed out that the NIH liked big projects – and that a useful alternative name for them was “Not Invented Here”!  Right up there with “Not Real Funding” as the alternative name for our National Research Foundation….


Matthew Paul (St. George’s University of London) presented a set of 15 case studies of commercial paths to introducing molecular farming, which was very interesting to us academic types.  More interesting was the fact that while innovative and protectable technology and products were important to start-ups, the majority of successful ones had their basis in platform development – and the average time from platform to product identification was about five years.  Venture capital firms were considered too greedy for early-stage start-ups, but their involvement later led to stability as their partnering was long term.

Another interesting feature was that many of the successful ventures sold “side products”: for example, Ventria sold cytokines and cosmetic formulations, while KBP sold cell culture reagents.  Several also licenced out technology platforms, but the revenue was not held to be so good.

There were three main indicators of success:

  • Management quality
  • A good lead product
  • Having a panel of products

IMG_0135A good strategy to stay alive was “maximum income / minimum burn” – and he held up the example of Medicago in this regard.  He noted that in the absence of major investment from Big Pharma, Phase 2 trial success was the driver for commercialisation.

PBVAB 5 Verona June 2013: Session 7

3 August, 2013

Suzanne Huddy, a postdoc in our lab, kindly took some notes in a session I moderated at the 5th PBVAB in Verona this year.

Little did she know this is just my way of easing her in to doing this more often…B-)  Thanks, Sue!

Session 7: Manufacturing and Production Systems Developments

Moderator: EP Rybicki

Andreas Schaaf from Greenovation Biotech GmbH presented on “BryotechnologyTM en route to the clinic”, highlighting a production platform based on the moss Physcomitrella patens.  The overriding advantage of this system is that the moss is haploid and therefore genome modification is fairly straight forward with timelines for modifications similar to that of yeast systems.  Physcomitrella patens is also fairly unique since it has a very high occurring rate of homologous recombination (HR).  These traits along with the fact that the genome is sequenced and annotated allow fairly simple customization of the genomic background.  Using this, they have glyco-engineered strains and have removed plantized glycosylation completely.

Other than the products mentioned on their website (, they are currently working on α-galactosidase for treating Fabry disease.  Fabry disease is a rare genetic lysosomal storage disorder which results in the accumulation of lipids in the kidney, autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular system cells.  They are also working on the production of recombinant human β glucocerebrosidase for the treatment of Gaucher disease.  Interestingly, these are the same products produced by Protalix Therapeutics.

Stefan Schillberg from the Fraunhofer IME presented on “Co-MoFarm- Contained molecular farming: Controlled contained systems for high yield consistency”.  The CoMoFarm project has been funded for 3.5 years under the European Commission 7th Framework programme.  This project focused on the development of high-yielding plant-based production systems for recombinant proteins.

The presentation initially contrasted the production capability of the various plant platforms employed by this group using both HA (influenza hemagglutinin) and the human M12 antibody as protein products.  The production platforms included Arabidopsis and rice suspension cells, tobacco plants, roots and suspension cells, and moss suspension cultures.  The results presented highlighted the fact that one production platform is not necessarily optimal for all recombinantly expressed proteins, although the traditional tobacco leaves and BY-2 suspension cultures did produce the highest expression levels.  By further optimization of cultivation parameters (including media components), expression levels could be increased by up to 30 fold.  The presentation also showed that expression could also be improved by co-expression of the target protein with a fluorescent marker, DsRed.  In short, this allows the development of higher expressing lines through the non-invasive selection single elite expressing cells by flow-cytometry.  Stephan Schillberg also presented on the groups development of non-invasive monitoring systems for plant cell health and productivity.

The presentation was ended with a comparison on the cost of production of M12 antibody in either tobacco plants or BY-2 cells grown in 200 L bioreactors.  While the cost of producing this product in tobacco plants was less per gram of the product, the time for production in BY-2 cells was much shorter.  Details of the costing can be found at, where CoMoFarm have kindly made the presentation given in Verona available.

Pascal Drake from St. George’s University of London presented on “Hydroponic cultivation of tobacco for the production of recombinant pharmaceutical proteins by rhizosecretion”.  This presentation looked at the production and optimization of antibodies and Cyanovirin-N (CV-N) (a cyanobacterial protein which displays virucidal activity) in hydroponically cultivated tobacco plants.  Data was shown that suggested the inclusion of PGRs (plant growth regulators) and a nitrate source in the hydroponic medium could increase the concentration of the protein of interest in the medium.  Hydroponic cultivation has some advantages over traditional cultivation of tobacco plants.  Plants are cultivated in chemically defined media, therefore there is better control over the process and in this way this system approaches cell fermentation processes.  Additionally, fully processed secreted proteins can be harvested over the lifetime of the plant and purification can be simplified since the medium does not contain as many proteins as a whole leaf extract.  A “nifty” way of doing a western blot was also shown- basically, transgenic plants are germinated on nitrocellulose paper; this paper can then be used directly for a western blot since the protein of interest would have been secreted directly from the roots of the plant onto the membrane.  After development of the blot, the presence of the protein is seen in “root-shaped” pattern.

Bertrand Magy from the Institute of Life Sciences at the University catholique de Louvain, Belgium presented on the “Development of suspension cells as a competitive production system for antibodies”.  This research looked at designing an optimized antibody scaffold that can be combined with different variable regions in order to produce high levels of functional antibodies.  Initially, the expression of different IgG isotypes (human, rat and mouse) with the same variable region was investigated in tobacco and Arabidopsis thaliana suspension cells.  Bertrand showed that while antibodies accumulated in the extracellular medium, degradation occurred according to the isotype.  In this case, A. thaliana was also shown to be the better producer.  As is the case with many other cell suspension-based expression, the yield of antibody could be optimized by manipulating the growth medium.  Levels of antibody production of >30 mg/L could be achieved.

PBVAB 5 Part 2

28 June, 2013

Session: Vaccines 1.

This session produced some of the most interesting talks of the conference, so I will go into some detail in describing them.

Charlie Arntzen (ASU, Tempe, AZ) gave a typically excellent presentation on their latest work on norovirus vaccine formulation for stability and oral delivery – using lyophilized aloe gel-derived nanoparticles.

Norovirus outbreaks are tracked by a CDC lab continuously; every 2 years or so new strains circulate, meaning vaccines will have to keep up.  Ligocyte makes VLPs in insect cells currently; however, plant expression has been shown to be able to respond quickly to strain changes, via Icon vectors used at KBP, with the possibility of very quickly making a lot of product.  Downstream formulation has been a problem, however, as the processing throws away lots of antigen protein downstream.

Ligocyte use MPLA and chitosan (an irritant) for nasal immunisation: this has 50% efficacy.  The FDA does not like adjuvants for nasal dosing – so they went for no adjuvant, and chose the nasal route as one gets a more uniform response for 5x less Ag than with oral administration.  The formulation is basically of VLP preparations with lyophilized and milled pectin content from aloe gel: the uniformly-sized nanoparticles absorb water, and stick to each other and to the nasal mucosa for 3 hrs+.

Charlie commented that “This is the one time I recommend putting white powder in your nose!”.

They have tried mixing VLPs of different virus types – and found that with 50 ug of each, you get same immune response as to one.  Apparently this virus is unusual as you can do virus challenge experiments quite easily: these cost $15K/patient, which is a bargain.  The group is looking at annual or biannual dosing for maximum protection, and is also formulating VLPs for oral vaccination.  Interestingly, the aloe gel also works for intramuscular vaccination – possibly as a result of a depot effect?


Yuri Gleba (Nomad / Icon Genetics, Halle, Germany) was supposed to speak on “Technology progress in PMP (=plant-made pharma) research” – but basically said “Transient technologies are the future!”, and then went on to demonstrate it.  He noted that KBP can process 1.2 tonnes biomass/day for agroinfiltrating plants, using a robot from a car factory and a converted industrial autoclave – and consequently have to grow plants in trays for infiltration. Nomad had therefore started investigating how spraying Agrobacterium onto plants might work – with a biosafe Agrobacterium as a prime requirement.  They also took the bold approach of doing transient agronomic trait engineering – for traits such as flowering control, drought tolerance, yield suites, cellulases and anti-microbials – and sold the idea to Bayer Crop Science.

Their technique uses an engineered Agrobacterium that is 100-1000x more efficient at gene delivery than standard strains, with surfactants that allow easy penetration of the leaf tissues.  In combination with the use of replicating vectors that spread cell-to-cell, they could get 100% of standard infiltration yields, by a far easier and much more scalable technique.  They found that spraying worked for most dicots and even for maize, albeit inefficiently, and that they could repeatedly dose plants for the same trait with no apparent harm.  Transient expression of cry1ab and cry2ab Bt toxins delivery worked well, as did delivery of the Cold Shock protein from B subtilis, which also works for drought tolerance.

Their technique does away with need for seed – they can do somatic trait addition / subtraction, they can use the technology outdoors, and there is no trait transmission and so no escape, as the genes do not get into seed.  It means they can produce proteins in  plants at commodity agricultural prices – which considerably broadens the scope of “biofarming” in terms of what products can viably be made!!

One good example was cellulases for bioethanol production: one needs 1-3% w/w relative to cellulose mass, meaning production must be high volume and cheap.  Yuri noted it was possible to store biomass as silage or possibly by vacuum-packing at room temperature for months and that the silage process also eliminated Agrobacterium.  He mused that it might be possible to make a sauerkraut-type oral formulation for recombinant protein delivery…B-)

As for antimicrobials in plants, he said organic crops have more microbes than standard, eg: the recent fatal infections caused by E coli in bean sprouts in Europe – and that a solution would be to make eg colicin E1 in the plants, to kill the bacteria in situ.  One can apply for GRAS status which is MUCH faster than for other routes of approval.  They were currently doing this for phage lysins, bacteriocins, and thaumatin, among others.  Yuri said transient expression tech was like flash drives vs old-style PCs: a versatile set of tools vs a one-trick pony.  He also mused that the technology could lead to reinvention of the old ideal of use of biofarming in undeveloped communities – presumably for low-cost remedies as well as for therapeutics, etc.

To a question on what was the shelf-life of recombinant Agro he replied that there was already field use of live bacteria to combat pathogenic strains; that one can take a Petri dish and dilute in 100l water and spray, and then keep the suspension for two days…it was a very robust bug!  An interesting regulatory point that came up was that the USDA thinks a plant is a GMO even if it is transiently sprayed.


Andres Wigdorovitz (INTA, Buenos Aires, Argentina) spoke on their experience of a decade’s worth of work on plant-made veterinary vaccines.  He opened by noting that he has a major problem of getting money from companies in Argentina – partly die to what a “product” is defined as, because what happens is that a “researcher has an egg, whereas the company wants a butterfly”.

They made the decision to work in platforms – to make diagnostic kits initially, which teaches one how to make recombinant proteins.  They use baculovirus/insect cells and plants – in the form of transgenic alfalfa or transplastomic tobacco – to make the same proteins for comparison purposes, and as products, depending on which was more suitable.  While they had had considerable experience with FMDV vaccines made in plants, which had been protective, their current work focused on making novel vaccines and products.  An example was camellid-derived VHH nanobodies – and the fact that fusing the E2 protein of Bovine viral diarrhoea virus (BVDV) with a anti-E2 VHH gave a better alfalfa-produced immunogen for something that was already protective.  Their experimental vaccine was better than the commercial vaccine from the Ab response – and they could get total protection with 3 ug vaccine, and even better efficacy if they made an E2-HLA fusion.  He believed they will have a commercial vaccine in less than 2 yrs as they were engaged in getting regulatory approval now.

In other work, a FMDV VP1 peptide-GUS fusion expressed 10x better in transplastomic tobacco than in transgenic alfalfa.  A rotavirus VP8* fusion protein was also 10x increased in chloroplasts, and dry leaves preserved the protein very well.  They were also making VHH nanobodies against human rotavirus as vaccine coverage of local strains was not good – and VHH against the conserved VP6 could penetrate the outer capsid and bind and neutralize infectivity whereas larger proteins did not work.  They got 3% TSP expression in tobacco chloroplasts.  They were also making VHH to other rotavirus proteins, and to human noro- and influenza viruses.  All in all, it was a very heartening demonstration of a good business model, and that developing countries too can lead the field in some respects.


The remainder of the session was taken up with two talks from our group: these were given by Drs Ann Meyers and Inga Hitzeroth, on the parrot-infecting Beak and feather disease virus CP-elastin fusion protein production, and Human rotavirus CP and VLP production in N benthamiana via agroinfiltration, respectively.

The BFDV work has just been published with MSc student Lucian Duvenage as first author – from PubMed, then:

J Virol Methods. 2013 Jul;191(1):55-62. doi: 10.1016/j.jviromet.2013.03.028. Epub 2013 Apr 9.
Expression in tobacco and purification of beak and feather disease virus capsid protein fused to elastin-like polypeptides.
Duvenage L, Hitzeroth II, Meyers AE, Rybicki EP.
Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7700, South Africa.


Psittacine beak and feather disease, caused by beak and feather disease virus (BFDV), is a threat to endangered psittacine species. There is currently no vaccine against BFDV, which necessitates the development of safe and affordable vaccine candidates. A subunit vaccine based on BFDV capsid protein (CP), the major antigenic determinant, expressed in the inexpensive and highly scalable plant expression system could satisfy these requirements. Full-length CP and a truncated CP (ΔN40 CP) were transiently expressed in tobacco (Nicotiana benthamiana) as fusions to elastin-like polypeptide (ELP). These two proteins were fused to ELPs of different lengths in order to increase expression levels and to provide a simple means of purification. The ELP fusion proteins were purified by inverse transition cycling (ITC) and it was found that a membrane filtration-based ITC method improved the recovery of ΔN40 CP-ELP51 fusion protein relative to a centrifugation-based method.

Essentially, Lucian managed in some very elegant work to show that BFDV CP fused to a 51-mer ELP allowed production and subsequent simple purification of quite high yields of fusion protein.  It remains to be seen how immunogenic or protective this is – however, it is a breakthrough, as expression of the CP alone has been VERY problematic, in everything from insect cells through E coli, to plants.

Inga spoke on our recent MSc student David Mutepfa’s work on expression in plants of the CPs of a South African rotavirus that is not well matched to current live attenuated vaccines.  The short story is that he succeeded very well indeed in expressing three of the four proteins.  From a recent publication from me and Nunzia Scotti on plant-made VLPs, then:

Current studies in the Rybicki laboratory have focused on expression of capsid proteins of a local isolate of human rotavirus (G9 P[6]) that is not well matched to available commercial vaccines.  Expression of VP2, VP4 and VP6 in N. benthamiana was targeted via co-agroinfiltration to the cytosol, endoplasmic reticulum, apoplast and chloroplast. Electron microscopy showed that co-expressed VP2/6 and VP2/6/4 produced virus-like particles in the cytosol, with yields as high as 1.1 g/kg of plant material, for batches of 100 g.

…with a picture to prove VLPs are made:

rota pic


Rotavirus VP2/6/4 co-expression in N benthamiana: protein ex- tract partially purified by sucrose gradient centrifugation, particles captured onto electron microscope grids with mouse-anti VP6 antibody. Bar = 200 nm

Medicago Announces 2012 Second Quarter Financial Results: PR Newswire

15 August, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology News

Medicago Announces 2012 Second Quarter Financial Results PR Newswire QUEBEC CITY, Aug. 14, 2012 QUEBEC CITY , Aug. 14, 2012 /PRNewswire/ – Medicago Inc.

“Subsequent to the second quarter:

Announced the successful completion of a key milestone under an agreement with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The milestone was the production of at least 10 million doses of H1N1 VLP influenza vaccine candidate in one month (the “rapid fire test”). The rapid fire test was conducted at Medicago’s facility in Durham, North Carolina. As part of the rapid fire test, production of the H1N1 VLP influenza vaccine candidate began on March 25th, 2012, and was completed in 30 days on April 24th, 2012. The production lots were then tested by a third party laboratory to confirm both the immunogenicity of the vaccine candidate and the number of doses produced. Testing confirmed that a single dose of the H1N1 VLP influenza vaccine candidate induced protective levels of neutralizing antibodies in an animal model. The production of significantly more than 10 million doses, as defined by the testing conditions, were confirmed.”

This is a big, big deal – because they did this via transient epxression in plants, thus proving pretty much beyond doubt that this is now a serious vaccine manufacturing technology.

See on

Trade Secrets: Are Green Vaccines Appropriate for Africa? : Trade Secrets

21 June, 2012

See on Scoop.itVirology News

I have mentioned several times here, and elsewhere, that my lab works on expressing vaccine-relevant viral proteins in plants – and that I think this is a highly appropriate technology for the purpose.  Read more…

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