Covid-19: Vaccine player starts injecting humans with shots derived from tobacco-like plant

  • Canadian biotech firm Medicago develops plant-based potential vaccines.
  • Medicago relies on an Australian plant that is a close relative to tobacco to develop vaccines.
  • It tested an experimental Covid-19 shot on humans on Monday. 
  • This makes it one of 23 candidates that have reached phase 1 in clinical trials. 

Medicago has been using plants to develop potential vaccines for more than two decades. A new partnership with GlaxoSmithKline putting its unproven technology to the test against the novel coronavirus is pushing the Canadian biotech into the limelight.

The Quebec City-based company dosed the first humans with its experimental Covid-19 vaccine on Monday, making it one of 23 candidates that have reached phase 1 clinical trials in the race to curb the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.

Medicago, which is backed by large investors like Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma and Philip Morris International Inc., last week clinched a deal with Glaxo to pair the vaccine with the UK giant’s adjuvants - boosters that can help any brand of shot.

“It’s a bit of a coup for a company like ours, because I had to convince them about the robustness of our technology,” Chief Executive Officer Bruce Clark said of the plant platform, which has yet to produce an approved vaccine. “It’s a real watershed moment for us as the new kid in town.”

Plant related to tobacco

Medicago relies on an Australian plant that’s a close relative to tobacco, known as nicotiana benthamiana, to develop vaccines. The plant has a weakened immune system that allows it to easily host genetic material and develop particles that mimic a virus. As Clark put it in an interview, the plants serve as “bioreactors” that can harvest clinical-grade material in a matter of weeks.

The Canadian trial of Medicago’s Covid-19 candidate will involve 180 healthy patients aged 18 to 55, and will test various doses of the vaccine alone and coupled with two different adjuvants: one from Glaxo, and another from Dynavax Technologies Corp.

Pre-clinical results of its vaccine candidate both with and without a booster demonstrated a high level of neutralising antibodies following a single dose, according to the company. Should the early-stage study prove successful, Medicago aims to enter later-stage trials in October, and manufacture 100 million doses by the end of 2021.

Medicago, like many companies behind the 160 coronavirus vaccines currently in development, is seeking to earn investors’ trust by validating their new platforms amid the pandemic.

It’s “at once exciting, and extremely frustrating” to be a small vaccine player vying to be taken seriously, Clark said. “If we’re going to show the world how this works, we have to take Covid on. The skepticism for new technology is there. The plant skepticism is there.”

Budding technology

Medicago launched in 1999 out of a partnership between Canada’s agriculture department and Laval University. After focusing on the tobacco-adjacent plant, Medicago went public in 2006. In 2009 it began using the technology to develop a shot to counter the H1N1 pandemic. In 2013, Medicago was taken private by Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma and Philip Morris.

Clark, who has spent his career at a range of large pharmaceutical companies including Glaxo and Sanofi, was a vice president at Philip Morris when that acquisition occurred. He’s helped the company usher a seasonal flu vaccine through late-stage clinical trials. That program is currently under review by Canadian health authorities.

Medicago is not alone in pursuing a plant-based approach to the novel coronavirus. Cigarette maker British American Tobacco Plc has been working on a similar vaccine through its biotech subsidiary Kentucky BioProcessing.

Medicago sees itself as confronting a similar challenge as high-profile vaccine makers like Moderna, Pfizer and Sanofi, which are relying on so-called messenger RNA technology to prompt the body to make a key protein from the virus, sparking an immune response. The mRNA technology also has yet to generate a vaccine approved by regulators in the US or beyond.

“We really think we’ll need more than one type of vaccine,” said Nathalie Landry, Medicago executive vice president of scientific and medical affairs, noting that various populations could respond differently to certain technologies.

So, Clark said, “the data has to speak for itself.”

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