Contributed by guest blogger: Nicole Engelhardt ’11
Usually when you get a vaccine it means you get a needle and a bandage. Not only that, but you get an attenuated virus. These weakened virus particles are strikingly similar to viable ones; they even infect cells. Because of their weakened state, they infect slower than natural virus particles, giving the body time to react. However, people who have weakened immune systems can still exhibit symptoms as if they were infected by the natural virus.
But a new tool may make this issue obsolete. What really matters when it comes to a vaccine is the shape of the particle, not the contents. The shape is recognized by B-cells in the body which then reproduce creating antibodies that attack all of the virus particles. However, these B-cells are very specific and very picky. Normally, it makes sense to use a weakened virus because it has the exact same shape as a normal virus and your B-cells will react to the vaccine as if it were the real thing. Is there any way, then, to produce the exact shape of the virus and therefore the correct antibodies without having the harmful side effects?
This paper explores the rotavirus particle which is the leading cause of gastroenteritis in the world. In some parts of the world, gastroenteritis can be deadly for many children. As it happens, the shape of the rotavirus particle can be mimicked almost exactly in plants. The shape of this virus is a capsid made out of proteins. First, the authors take the genes that code for the capsid proteins and insert it into the genome of the plants. Then the plants express the viral genes, creating the virus capsid proteins inside the cells of the plants. More incredible than that, these proteins self-assemble into the exact shape of the rotavirus capsid. Now you have a plant containing just the shell of the virus!
The experiments are still in their early stages, but when mice were fed these plants, the authors found they were producing the same antibodies that are produced when mice are actually infected with rotavirus. This bodes well for future research in humans. Once the antibodies are created, the severity of future infections is greatly decreased. If these transgenic plants do work, it could mean a safer and perhaps more affordable form of the vaccine that could help people the world over fight rotavirus before it can infect.