The Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biotechnology (CMB), the Fraunhofer Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), the Boston University College of Engineering, and the biopharmaceutical company iBio report that they have developed a fully automated, scalable factory that uses nongenetically modified green plants to produce large quantities of vaccines and therapeutics within weeks.
This plant-based vaccine manufacturing system takes advantage of plant viral vector technology developed by Fraunhofer CMB for iBio. The technology has the capability to produce specific proteins within the leaves of rapidly growing plant biomass. The factory's robotically tended machines plant seeds, nurture the growing plants, introduce a viral vector that directs the plant to produce a target protein, and harvest the biomass once the target has accumulated in the plant tissue, explains Fraunhofer CMI, which designed the system.
“Traditional methods of vaccine production can take many months,” says Vidadi Yusibov, Ph.D., executive director of CMB. “Our plant-based technology provides the means for rapid, large-scale production of vaccine material in a cost-effective manner. By partnering with CMI and Boston University, we engineered agricultural and molecular biology into scalable automated processes to establish the first cGMP facility for plant-based protein production.”
The technology reportedly has the capacity to grow tens of thousands of plants in one batch. The plants are grown in multiplant trays that are used to handle and transport the plants to the different processing stations. To automate the process, robots glide up and down a track, tending the plants, delivering trays from the lighted, irrigated growth modules to each processing station at the appropriate time.
“In order to quickly produce large quantities of vaccine material or other protein-based medicines such as antibodies in compliance with cGMP, it was necessary to develop a consistent, repeatable process,” points out Andre Sharon, a professor of mechanical engineering at Boston University and director of CMI. “Even though the process of making vaccines from plants includes many aspects of traditional horticulture such as growing, watering, and harvesting, we have developed a way to automate those functions to quickly, safely, and cost effectively scale up from a few milligrams in a laboratory setting to the many kilograms that would be required in case of a pandemic. The process is faster, less expensive, safer, and does not require the sophisticated culturing or fermentation necessary in the current vaccine production processes.”
This plant-based protein production system resulted from a three-year collaboration between the Fraunhofer Centers and Boston University. “This is a perfect example of coupling engineering expertise and scientific advancement to cost effectively meet a societal need,” remarks Robert Brown, president of Boston University and a chemical engineer.
Support from DARPA under the Accelerated Manufacturing of Pharmaceuticals program along with funding from the state of Delaware were key in facilitating the design and construction of the pilot facility in Newark, DE, the partners add. iBio owns the technology developed and continues to sponsor refinement of the platform. The firm will leverage the technology for development and manufacture of its own product candidates and also work with corporate and government clients on product development and biologic manufacturing.