Plants could act as safe, speedy factories for personalized treatments against a common form of cancer, according to recent findings from Stanford’s School of Medicine. The results came in the first human tests of an injectable treatment grown in tobacco plants — a new type of vaccine that fights disease instead of preventing it.
The treatments, which would vaccinate cancer patients against their malignant cells, could lead to earlier therapy to tackle follicular B-cell lymphoma, an immune-system malignancy diagnosed in about 16,000 people in the United States each year, commonly considered incurable. The standard treatment, chemotherapy, has such severe side effects that patients often opt for watchful waiting in the early stages of illness. However, plant-grown vaccines, which lack side effects, could allow earlier, more aggressive management of the cancer.
“This would be a way to treat cancer without side effects,” says Stanford professor of oncology Ronald Levy, MD, the study’s senior author. “The idea is to marshal the body’s own immune system to fight cancer.”
To make a tobacco plant churn out a human antibody, scientists isolate the antibody from the patient’s tumor and put the antibody gene into a modified version of the tobacco mosaic virus. They infect a tobacco plant with the gene-carrying virus by scratching the virus on its leaves. The virus takes the gene into the plant’s cells, which then churn out lots of antibody. After a few days, technicians snip off the plant’s leaves, grind them up and purify the antibody. Only a few plants are needed to make enough vaccine for each patient.
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