If Charles Arntzen, Ph.D., has his way, tomatoes won't just be for salads anymore. In fact, his innovative research on plant-based vaccines may completely reshape the way that the general public thinks about the fruits and vegetables on their plates.
While eating the USDA daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and certain types of cancer, Arntzen believes that edible plants have great potential in the field of preventative medicine. As director of the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute, Arntzen has been laboring for almost 8 years to create a genetically altered tomato plant that will carry and deliver disease-preventing antigenic proteins. In particular, Arntzen hopes that his modified tomatoes, which carry a gene from a certain variety of E. coli bacterium, will immunize consumers around the world against debilitating and often fatal diarrheal disease. How does Arntzen's fruit-based vaccine work? By ingesting a pill containing the freeze-dried powder from a genetically modified tomato, the patient's body will learn to recognize E. coli bacteria and prepare itself with the proper antibodies to ward off actual bacterial infection.
Considering that orally administered vaccines (including those that prevent polio and typhoid) have been used effectively in medical practice for a number of years, Arntzen hopes that his tomato vaccine will be not only easy to administer, but also easy to manufacture, distribute, and afford. More than 2.2 million deaths are attributed to diarrheal diseases each year, with the majority of fatalities striking children in developing nations. As an alternative to dealing with the safety issues surrounding needles and the cost of vaccine manufacturing, Arntzen's vaccine-producing tomato plants could be grown easily and safely on-site to produce affordable vaccines for indigenous communities. His so-called "edible vaccines" need no refrigeration, either; however, the tomatoes must remain raw prior to processing.
According to Alexander V. Karasev, Ph.D., an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Jefferson Medical College, plant-based vaccines will cost a fraction of the price of traditional vaccines once they are manufactured on a larger scale. Arntzen, along with dozens of other labs throughout the world, has recognized both the economic and medicinal implications for agricultural crops in the global health-care arena. Already, Arntzen is investigating plant-derived vaccines for diseases like cholera, human papilloma virus, and hepatitis, while lab researchers are investigating the biomedical potential for bananas and potatoes.
While Arntzen's agricultural invention is certainly a ground-breaking application of food science, you won't be seeing his medicinal tomatoes on grocery-store shelves any time soon. Since tomatoes produce varying amounts of proteins for vaccines, measurement and dosage must be left up to medical professionals and pharmaceutical manufacturers. FDA approval for use of the tomato vaccine in human trials is still pending.