Nature can provide the starting point for many drugs, pharmaceuticals and vaccines – and plants are no exception. Professor George Lomonossoff has recently been named Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Innovator of the Year for his work to harness the power of the plant.
Together with Dr Frank Sainsbury from the Laval University of Canada, Lomonossoff has developed a system to produce vaccines and pharmaceutical proteins rapidly in plants. The system will enable vaccines to the produced much more rapidly for emergency vaccination programmes in the face of disease pandemics.
Lomonossoff, who is from the John Innes Centre in Norwich – which receives strategic funding from the BBSRC – was presented his award from Business Secretary Vince Cable. We caught up with him to find out more about the award and his work.
How does it feel to receive the Innovator of the Year 2012 and Most Promising Innovator awards?
It’s a wonderful feeling, really. Although I thought we had a chance, I didn’t dare to imagine that we would win. Therefore it was a real surprise when the envelope was opened and our names were read out – and to have it happen twice was amazing! Thinking back, the last time I had to go up on a stage to collect an award was at my school prize-giving, so it’s been a while!
Tell us more about the project which won you the awards.
My background is in plant virology and much of my recent work has concerned the development of plant virus-based vectors for the expression of foreign proteins in plants. Virus-based vectors generally rely on replication of the virus genome to achieve high levels of protein; however, this approach has a number of disadvantages in terms of the size and complexity of the proteins which can be expressed. The system we developed (termed CPMV-HT) relies not on replication but on making mRNAs “hyper-translatable” (HT) by flanking them with modified untranslated regions from Cowpea mosaic virus (CPMV). Expression is achieved by simply infiltrating leaves with suspensions of Agrobacterium tumefaciens carrying expression plasmids and usually reaches a maximum about one week after infiltration.
How can plants be used to produce pharmaceuticals and vaccines rapidly?
Plants have attracted considerable attention recently as bioreactors for the production of pharmaceuticals because of their potential advantages in terms of cost and safety. We have shown that you can use the CPMV-HT system to rapidly express proteins, such as antigens or antibodies, of pharmaceutical interest and that the plant-produced proteins retain full biological activity. The CPMV-HT technology has been used, under licence, by the Canadian biotech company Medicago inc to produce vaccines against influenza virus – an example of a case where speed is of the essence.
How can the research be used, and what’s the next step?
The CPMV-HT expression system is generally applicable to situations where expression of a protein or proteins in plants is required. Most of the initial work concerned situations where the protein itself was the desired end product. This was the case with vaccines and antibodies. However, it is also possible to produce active enzymes within the plant tissue which can either be purified or used to alter the metabolism with the infiltrated tissue. As a testament to the flexibility of the system, it has already been supplied to more 120 laboratories worldwide for use in a wide variety of different projects.
You’re based at the John Innes Centre in Norwich – tell us what you do here.
I am a project leader in the Department of Biological Chemistry. This means that I lead a small team of post-doctoral researchers and students examining the uses of plant viruses in bio- and nanotechnology.