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Breakthrough: An Edible SARS Vaccine

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Your mother always knew vegetables were good for you, but she never imagined this. Scientists report they've made a tomato that contains a vaccine against SARS. SARS is the deadly lung disease that afflicted 8,000 people around the world in 2003. NPR's Richard Knox reports.

RICHARD KNOX reporting:

The report appears in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Getting plants to produce a vaccine against SARS is the brainchild of Dr. Hilary Koprowski at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Dr. HILARY KOPROWSKI (Thomas Jefferson University): We know that the virus exists. It didn't disappear. We thought that it'd be perhaps important to have a stockpile of vaccine against SARS in case epidemic will return.

KNOX: But why a tomato? It comes down to cost. Plants are very efficient at making whatever protein scientists want, and plants don't contain pesky impurities that contaminate vaccines made with animal cells, so they should be cheaper to make.

Dr. KOPROWSKI: You can actually use any plants which you wish: lettuce, spinach, corn, cauliflower. All those are possibility to be used.

KNOX: Another attraction: You can eat your vaccine; no needles necessary. Dr. Carol Tacket of the University of Maryland is getting potatoes and corn to make vaccines against traveler's diarrhea.

Dr. CAROL TACKET (University of Maryland): I was very skeptical about this approach when we started because a transgenic potato that expresses a vaccine protein would go into the stomach and the intestine, and somehow what happens is that the body is able to identify that vaccine protein in amidst of potato foodstuff and process it as a vaccine.

KNOX: But don't expect to see vaccines in your local grocery store. Regulators won't allow vaccine-producing plants in the food chain. That's just one of many hurdles that will keep plant vaccines in the lab for at least several more years. Richard Knox, NPR News.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since he joined NPR in 2000, Knox has covered a broad range of issues and events in public health, medicine, and science. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Talk of the Nation, and newscasts.
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