Part 2: An Apeeling Concept

Fact: You can get vaccinated by eating a banana. 

Needle-fearers rejoice – genetic engineering has gone beyond creating weird hybrid animals to invent bananas that, when eaten, deliver life saving vaccines (and taste delicious).

The idea was championed by Dr. Charles Arntzen as a way to increase vaccine coverage and delivery to young children in developing countries. Perhaps surprisingly, the process is not drastically different from making a normal vaccine – make little bits of the virus or bacteria you want to vaccinate against that aren’t dangerous to humans, and get them into the body. In this case, however, rather than producing these proteins in huge tanks and sticking them into syringes, you grow them in plantations and pick them when they’re ripe.

The magic comes from inserting genes for those critical proteins, taken from bacteria or viruses, into the DNA of the banana plant – a process called genetic modification, or GM. We have become experts at making GM crops faster growing or more resistant to cold, but GM crops can do so much more than just produce more food if you let your imagination go a little wild. The details involved in successfully producing an edible vaccine in a plant are staggering, but, after years of research, Dr Arntzen has finally shows that his bananas can prevent disease in clinical trials.

While tasty and attractive to kids, these oral vaccines would actually also be really practical – they are easy to administer, stable at warm temperatures and require only one dose, which are all major barriers to effective vaccination in the developing world – and so Dr Arntzen’s miracle bananas could save millions of lives. So while some might feel GM crops are ‘bad’, in my humble opinion its difficult to argue with that.

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites of Science’
Image under Creative Commons license

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