20 October 2014
The University of Cape Town’s Biopharming Research Unit (BRU) group developed the “first proof of efficacy of a plant-produced papillomavirus vaccine’. The unit’s breakthrough now sees it collaborating with Medicago, a Canadian biopharmaceutical company, to produce a plant based-HPV vaccine.
The human papilloma virus is indicated in causing a number of cancers, the most well-known of which is cervical cancer. This type of cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related deaths among women in South Africa.
According to a paper by Amy Kirkpatrick Brown, MD, MPH and Richard G Moore, MD FACOG at the Programme on Women’s Oncology at Brown University in the US, “ease of administration and production are the obvious strengths of plant-based vaccines’. Considering that the HPV vaccine is expensive for the majority of developing countries, introducing rapid, cost-effective production to increase the amount of the vaccine available would drive down costs.
Biopharming Research Unit director Professor Ed Rybicki said 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.
According to a statement from the University of Cape Town, Medicago 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-Andre 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.”
In the statement from UCT, Rybicki said the BRU has been perfecting their process for years and was the first group worldwide to produce significant amounts of HPV protein in plants.
According to the UCT statement, 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.
The BRU has the largest molecular biotechnology portfolio in South Africa.
South Africa’s HPV immunisation programme
South Africa is the first African country to introduce an HPV immunisation programme. In 2013 health minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that the provision of the vaccines for girls aged 9 to 10 in the “poorest 80% of schools starting in February 2104′.