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A norovirus vaccine has been discovered with help from tobacco plants and Arizona State researchers

Posted at 10:16 PM, Aug 17, 2018

TEMPE, Ariz. — It's a huge breakthrough for the highly contagious and deadly norovirus as researchers at the Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute have come up with a vaccine made from plants.

The norovirus is known as the perfect human pathogen. It can have you feeling awful for days, but researchers at ASU say a form of the tobacco plant may be the key to a vaccine.

Also known as the cruise ship illness, norovirus hits nearly 20 million Americans every year. According to Andy Diamos, a post-doctoral researcher at ASU, the average person has the stomach bug five times in their life.

“Norovirus is a horrible bug to get,” said Diamos. “It causes vomiting, diarrhea, all sorts of nasty stuff.”

There is no vaccine for the highly contagious bug because it's notoriously difficult to produce in a lab, until now, thanks to Diamos and Hugh Mason with the Biodesign Center.

“Genetic engineering has allowed us to design systems like plants to produce useful things like vaccines,” said Diamos.

By using a form of the tobacco plant, researchers discovered that a harmless bacteria would help grow a norovirus vaccine when the proper genes are transferred to the leaves.

“You can basically put in whatever genes you want and transfer those to the plant, so that's how we get the plant to make the vaccine,” said Diamos.

According to Diamos, real viruses are surrounded by a shell that protects its genes. The vaccine that grows inside the tobacco plant is essentially that shell without the harmful insides.

“If you give that to someone as a vaccine, it looks just like the real virus, but there is nothing on the inside,” said Diamos. “It can't cause disease; it can't actually infect you.”

That's what makes these plant-based vaccines safe and effective.

“One of the main reasons why we're focusing on plants is because they're so cheap to work with. These vaccines will hopefully be much cheaper to produce than traditional methods,” said Diamos.

Many discoveries from ASU researchers hit the market, this one could too, but it needs further study and would eventually need to be picked up by a pharmaceutical company which could take years.