It sounds like the beginning of a joke from a medical conference: What do you get when an immunologist and a plant molecular cell biologist share the same lab?
Many doctors and scientists would find humor in the simple fact that it rarely happens. You would be just as hard-pressed to find a plant expert at a medical school as you would be to find an immunologist inside a university’s biology department.
But at UNC Charlotte, the two disciplines have come together. And in the case of Ken Piller and Ken Bost, what you get when they do is the kind of innovation that may some day change the course of medicine.
In 2005, Piller and Bost, both professors at the university, launched SoyMeds, a company where research into soybeans is on the cusp of making vaccines, diagnostic tests and therapeutic medicines safer and more affordable.
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The soybean, they’ve discovered, can help flick the immune system on or off like a light switch. Turning it on can protect against diseases like measles and polio. Turning it off can benefit people with autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, where their own immune systems fight healthy cells.
It’s a discovery with enormous potential. One day, our grandchildren may sit wide-eyed in disbelief as we tell them the story of our own childhood visits to the doctor – perched on a table and poked full of holes from immunization shots.
Instead, they’ll just drink a glass of soymilk where the proteins have been specially made to provide immunity from a variety of diseases.
The key is in the protein of both the virus and the soybean. Our largest immune system lies in the gut and responds better to proteins than carbohydrates or anything else.
Researchers have discovered that taking just the proteins of viral organisms is enough to trigger an immunity response in our bodies.
In their lab, Bost and Piller have genetically introduced those proteins into soybean proteins, creating a soybean with pharmaceutical uses.
Soybean-derived vaccinations, where patients pop a soybean seed for immunity, may some day be the only kind of vaccinations that exist.
The benefits of a soybean-based vaccine that uses just the protein portion of a virus are many, said Bost. “If you can isolate the stuff on the outside and just use the protein, then you don’t have to worry about this pathogen causing the disease in some people. It’s much safer.”
Much of what’s on the market today can cause infection in some people.
Of those who receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination – which is made from live and weakened viruses – 5 percent will develop a mild form of one of the diseases.
One in 2.4 million who take the oral polio vaccination, which is no longer used in the United States, will develop polio.
SoyMeds’s lab, housed in Woodward Hall on the university’s main campus, is no bigger than a walk-in closet. Its humid and balmy climate shelters a small crop of soybean plants specially designed for pharmaceutical use.
The idea of plant-based vaccines emerged in the 1980s but has sputtered and spun its wheels most of the time since then.
“None of the vaccines that I’m aware of right now are being used with plant systems,” said Piller. “You use bacteria cultures, yeast cultures, fermenters – traditional biological systems.”
But the process to purify those cells in a laboratory is costly, said Bost, and the expense is passed on to the patients.
Soybeans don’t need to go through the same rigorous purification process. “We can bring the cost of production down considerably,” said Bost. “We can grow a dose of vaccine for fractions of a cent.”
Last year, SoyMeds won the North Carolina Technology Association’s Life Sciences Company of the Year award, for what the judges called a disruptive technology.
Bost and Piller say it’s one of the biggest honors they’ve received.
“It’s making people say, ‘Hey, this is radically different than the way we think now, and it’s got a lot of potential.’ ”