AMES, IOWA — Iowa State University researchers are putting flu vaccines into the genetic makeup of corn, which may someday allow pigs and humans to get a flu vaccination simply by eating corn or corn products.
"We're trying to figure out which genes from the swine influenza virus to incorporate into corn so those genes, when expressed, would produce protein," said Hank Harris, professor in animal science and one of the researchers on the project. "When the pig consumes that corn, it would serve as a vaccine."
This collaborative effort project involves Mr. Harris and Brad Bosworth, an affiliate associate professor of animal science working with pigs, and Kan Wang, a professor in agronomy, who is developing the vaccine traits in the corn.
According to the researchers, the corn vaccine would also work in humans when they eat corn or even corn flakes, corn chips, tortillas or anything that contains corn, Mr. Harris said. The research is funded by a grant from Iowa State University's Plant Sciences Institute, and is their Biopharmaceuticals and Bioindustrials Research Initiative.
If the research goes well, the corn vaccine may be possible in five to seven years. In the meantime, the team is trying to expedite the process. "While we're waiting for Wang to produce the corn, we are starting initial experiments in mice to show that the vaccine might induce an immune response," Mr. Bosworth said.
Mr. Harris said the team still needs more answers. "The big question is whether or not these genes will work when given orally through corn," he added. "That is the thing we've still got to determine."
Stability and safety are several advantages to the corn vaccine. Once the corn with the vaccine is grown, it can be stored for long-term without losing its potency, researchers claim. If a swine flu virus breaks out, the corn could be shipped to the location to try to vaccinate animals and humans in the area quickly. Because corn grain is used as food and feed, there is no need for extensive vaccine purification, which can be an expensive process.