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Vaccines Grown in Lettuce - What Are they Doing with Transgenic Edible Vaccines?

Health & Wellness

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed an amendment that would prohibit funding for transgenic edible vaccines — vaccines grown in genetically engineered plants for consumption by humans or animals.


The amendment, introduced by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) to the agricultural appropriations bill H.R. 4368, would bar the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from funding the vaccines for fiscal year 2024.


A vote on the full bill in the House is still pending as of this writing.


In an interview with The Defender, Massie said he introduced the amendment after learning about a recent project in California, funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, that involves growing lettuce and trying to get the lettuce to produce mRNA vaccines that are intended to be consumed by humans who eat the lettuces.


Massie said he is concerned “that plants cross-pollinate and pollen from these modified plants, food-producing plants, could carry in the wind to other fields and contaminate them. And we could really contaminate a lot of our food supply with unknown doses of vaccines that would deliver unknown dosages.”


“Plants release pollen and it can go anywhere with the wind or with insects, and I just think it’s a bad idea,” he added.


“Rep. Massie is right to be concerned,” Claire Robinson, managing editor of GMWatch, told The Defender. “Genetically engineering a potent immunogen into food plants is irresponsible in the extreme.”


She added: “All the usual risks of GM [genetically modified] plants — the DNA-damaging effects of the GM transformation process leads to changes in gene expression and biochemistry of the plant, which can include the production of toxins or allergens — apply to these vaccine-producing plants, with additional risks on top.


“In the case of vaccine-producing plants, you are intentionally engineering a plant to elicit an immune reaction. This increases the level of risk exponentially.”


According to a 2013 scientific paper, transgenic edible vaccines “are prepared by introducing selected desired genes into plants and inducing these genetically modified plants to manufacture the encoded proteins.”


Such vaccines offer “several potential advantages” to conventional vaccine production techniques according to the paper, including a potentially lower cost of production that would be suitable for developing countries.


Efforts to develop transgenic edible vaccines are not new — scientific literature on the topic dates back to at least 1999. What is new with some current attempts to develop transgenic edible vaccines is that they would be geared to deliver mRNA vaccines orally.


“These are all genetically modified crops,” Massie said. “They’ve been injected with mRNA or spliced with DNA, with the intent of creating copies of that RNA or DNA. The plants are pretty effective at that.”


Robinson said this approach is not new. “Scientists have been trying to produce edible vaccines in plants for many years and some testing has occurred in animals and humans.”


However, she added, “Thus far, not one plant-produced vaccine has been approved anywhere, as far as I know. What does that tell us? Either they don’t work, or they are not safe, or both,” Robinson said.


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