One year ago, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. From that moment, we at Medicago focused our efforts to respond to this emerging danger. The capacity to research, develop and produce vaccines at speed and at scale has never been more important. By leveraging our history in rapid pandemic response, we believe our plant-derived vaccine technology can play a critical role to prepare the world for the threats of today, and of future pandemics.

Medicago. A plant-derived pioneer  

For those who may not be familiar with us, Medicago has been a leader in the area of plant-derived therapeutics since 1999. Our most important lab is essentially a giant greenhouse, filled with thousands of N. benthamiana plants – it really is a sight to behold. Over the years, our team of researchers has perfected a method to rapidly produce vaccines in large quantities. This can be done by turning plants into mini factories. The plants themselves have a weakened immune system, the result of natural genetic changes over millennia, meaning that genetic material can be successfully hosted by the plants.i

Our path to developing a new vaccine begins when our researchers receive an antigenic viral gene sequence from global health organizations. We synthesize the gene of interest and introduce it into the DNA of a bacterial vector (called Agrobacterium Tumefaciens) which later carry the gene into the cells of the plant leaves. Our plants are submerged into a liquid infused with bacterial vectors each of them containing the viral gene of interest, and through infiltration, the leaves absorb the liquid with the bacteria.  Our plants are submerged into a liquid infused with the vector copies, and through vacuum infiltration, the leaves absorb the liquid. Our plants are then moved to a greenhouse and left to grow for 4-6 days. During this growth period, non-infectious virus look-a-likes, which we call Virus-Like Particles (VLPs), are produced massively inside the plant’s leaves. We then extract the VLPs to create our vaccines.

Benefits of plant-derived vaccine development

The recent pandemic has highlighted the importance of having multiple countermeasures in place when public health threats arise. Plant-derived vaccine development offers several key attributes, of which speed is one of the most important. Our approach can deliver researchgrade vaccine doses in just 19 days, and clinical-grade doses in 6-8 weeks. This response time has been tested for multiple potential health crises, for which we have developed vaccine candidates, including H1N1, Ebola, and most recently for COVID-19. We were also able to manufacture 10 million doses of an influenza candidate for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) inside a month.

Our platform is the only one of its kind that has the potential to produce both vaccines and antibodies. This versatility means we can leverage the power of our plants to research and develop a large armoury of prophylactics and treatments against various infectious diseases.

Our greenhouse facilities allow for rapid and easy up-scaling of production – whether we need to grow 10 or 10,000 plants, the conditions needed to cultivate remain the same. Our vast greenhouse can house thousands of plants at one time, all busily producing VLPs and, thanks to the development of our new facility in Quebec, we will soon have the capability to produce up to 1 billion doses of pandemic vaccine per year above our current production capacity.

The growing reputation of plant-derived therapeutics

The science of plant-derived vaccine technology has advanced greatly over the last quarter of a century.ii Our approach is now recognized as an important option in the battle against pandemics and disease. We have shown the capability to be a trusted partner to U.S. governmental agencies DARPA and BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority), leading scientific and academic institutions like the NIH, the CDC, and both Harvard and Stanford Universities. We have an influenza vaccine candidate under review with Health Canada and have pioneered the only plant-derived COVID-19 vaccine candidate currently in Phase III clinical trials.

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that no one company or organization can defeat a pandemic alone. Through the development of our vaccines and the advances of our technology, we hope to show the world the potential of plant-derived therapeutics. Our mission is to protect human health. To pursue that goal, we are putting our trust in the incredible power of plants.

i Bally, J et al. Nature Plants. The extremophile Nicotiana benthamiana has traded viral defence for early vigour. Available at: Nature Plants. 2015, 1, 15165.

ii Takeyama,N et al. Plant-based vaccines for animals and humans: recent advances in technology and clinical trials. Ther Adv Vaccines. 2015 Sep; 3 (5-6): 139–154.