The Cross-Border Biotech Blog

Biotechnology, Health and Business in Canada, the United States and Worldwide

Friday Science Review: January 7, 2011

Symmetry Saves the Day

University of Toronto ♦ Published in Stem Cells, Dec. 29, 2010

One of the hallmarks of stem cells is their ability to maintain the stem cell pool indefinitely through the process of asymmetric division. When they divide they give rise to one slightly more differentiated cell and one daughter stem cell identical to the original. By carrying out cell division in this manner, stem cell populations, at least in theory, are capable of living indefinitely. David Piccin and Cindi Morshead — researchers at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research — discovered that the Wnt (pronounced ‘wint’) signaling pathway is involved in damage response in neural stem cells found in the brain. Using a mouse model Piccin and Morshead show that when neural stem cells sense it is time to replenish the stem cell population, for example during the period following a stroke, Wnt signaling contributes to a signaling cascade that promotes symmetric division. When stem cells divide symmetrically they produce two identical daughter stem cells rather than one daughter stem cell and a differentiated progenitor, ensuring that the stem cell pool does not become depleted.

H5N1 Vaccine Derived from Tobacco Plants Shows Results in the Clinic

Medicago Inc. ♦ Published in PLoS ONE, Dec. 22, 2010

Egg-based vaccine manufacturing failed to live up to its promise of rapidly producing large quantities of live vaccine for control of viral outbreaks. During the recent H1N1 influenza pandemic only 3 million doses of live vaccine had been produced by the 5 month mark, when 60 million had been expected. Canadian biotechnology company Medicago Inc. has come up with an all together different approach that could make fast and efficient vaccine production a reality — a plant-based manufacturing technology that produces influenza vaccines using Nicotiana benthamiana. At the core of the vaccine technology is something known as a “Virus-Like Particle” (VLP). VLPs are small entities containing the hemagglutinin protein of H5N1, and are produced by infecting tobacco plants with an Agrobacterium inoculum containing an H5 expression cassette. VLPs are then harvested from the aerial portions of the plant. Although a VLP resembles a viral particle, it lacks the genetic content within, thus is replication defective and non-infectious. Another aspect differentiating Medicago’s approach is that the technology only requires the genetic sequence of the virus, not an actual sample, as is the case with technologies using inactivated virus in vaccines. In a preclinical study led by Medicago’s Dr. Louis Vezina, researchers show that a VLP vaccine could induce cross-reactive antibodies in ferrets. After challenging the animals with lethal doses of H5N1 researchers observed reduced pathology and suppressed viral loads in vaccinated animals. The paper also reports on clinical results: a phase 1 trial of the H5 VLP vaccine in healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 60 revealed that the plant-derived vaccine was tolerated well at all doses and had strong immunogenicity as detected by microneutralization assays. These results taken together hold promise for Medicago’s plant-based manufacturing technology. Another plus? The vaccine can be produced in 3 weeks of sequence release! This is no doubt why DARPA made a non-repayable contribution of $21 million to Medicago back in August to build a 90,000 square foot cGMP facility in North Carolina for VLP vaccine production.

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