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Health Beat: 'Smokin' flu vaccine. Medicine's next big thing?

By Melanie Falcon, Anchor / Reporter, @Melanie_Falcon, MFalcon@wfmz.com
Published On: May 30 2013 12:49:05 PM CDT
Updated On: May 30 2013 04:43:25 PM CDT

There might be a new way to prevent the flu, and it's coming from an unlikely place.

There might be a new way to prevent the flu, and it's coming from an unlikely place: the tobacco plant.

Using tobacco can lead to cancer, emphysema and heart disease. In fact, the National Cancer Institute said it’s the leading cause of preventable injuries and death in the United States. 

Now, the known-killer could be saving your life by preventing the flu.

There's a greenhouse full of tobacco that's being used for research. 

"It’s something very, very new, and it’s something very, very unique," said Charles Bryant, greenhouse manager.

He's helping turn the plants into flu vaccines for the bio-pharmaceutical company Medicago.

"The vaccine is actually produced inside the leaves itself," explained Bryant.

Mike Wanner, executive vice president of operations for Medicago USA, said the plants are submerged in a natural bacteria that's genetically engineered. Then, the tobacco is put in a vacuum environment.  

"It draws in the agrobacterium, and then the agrobacterium expands in the plant and that becomes the virus-like particle that is the vaccine," Wanner explained.

Traditional flu vaccines are made from chicken eggs. Each egg can produce about four doses. Wanner said each one of the tobacco plants can make between 30 and 100 doses.

The plant-based vaccine is being tested on various flu strains right now. 

"It induces a very strong immune response in humans," Wanner said.

If trials go as planned, we’re told the tobacco flu vaccine could be on the market sometime in 2016.

Officials said the plants could also be used to make a variety of other vaccines, including one for rabies.

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DOWNLOAD and VIEW the full-length interview with Mike Wanner about the possibility of a new way to prevent the flu