Home grown

LED lights cast a magenta glow over iBio’s growing room during a tour of the facility. Plants from the tobacco family, foreground, are grown and used to produce proteins for medical purposes.

A company with ties to the Brazos Valley is working with a Chinese biomedical firm to tackle the coronavirus by helping produce a vaccine to protect people from the illness.

The work is a collaboration between Beijing CC-Pharming Ltd., which is developing the vaccine, and iBio, which will use its FastPharming Facility in the Brazos Valley’s Biocorridor to produce the medication.

“We are so just thankful for them that they’re tackling, gosh, one of the biggest health crisis the world is facing,” Brazos Valley EDC President and CEO Matt Prochaska said.

Tom Isett, a member of the iBio board of directors, said it is an exciting time because the FastPharming Facility was built exactly for this sort of project through the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) “Blue Angel” initiative. The initiative established facilities that could quickly produce and deliver vaccines and therapeutic drugs in response to pandemics.

Typically purpose-built vaccines take 12 to 14 months to produce using a mammalian or bacterial cell. For iBio, Isett said, production can take as little as two months using plant cells.

CC-Pharming’s gene will be put into bacteria that then will be introduced to infect the plants.

“The plant itself becomes a factory for the protein,” he said. “… The plant in its leaves just starts cranking out protein like crazy, and then all we do [is] harvest the plants, take the leaves, mash them up into some juice, and then we purify the protein that we’re interested in, and we can produce research quantities of material within two months.”

The opportunity to work on the vaccine is both exciting and scary, he said, because the virus’ spread is worse than originally thought and has the potential to mutate.

According to official data released Saturday, there have been 34,598 confirmed cases of coronavirus in China with 723 deaths linked to the illness. On Thursday, a 53-year-old American died in a hospital in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak originated. It is reportedly the first American citizen to die from the coronavirus.

A student at Texas A&M and a student at Baylor University were tested as suspected cases of the coronavirus, but test results on both came back negative.

Texas A&M also announced last month they would be suspending all university-sponsored travel to China for undergraduate students and were urging faculty, staff and graduate students to reconsider travel to the country, following the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel advisory released in late January.

Kevin McGinnis, the university’s chief risk, ethics and compliance officer, said travel for faculty, staff and graduate students would be approved on a case-by-case basis for essential travel only.

The advisory set travel to China at a Level 3, advising people to reconsider going to the country and increased the advisory to the Hubei province where the coronavirus originated to a Level 4, stating people should not travel to the area.

Isett said what comes out of iBio will be a first-generation vaccine, so they will not know for about two months if the medicine will work. If they get it right, it can be scaled up rapidly. If the vaccine is not right but has enough promise, then CC-Pharming can tweak the gene and it can then be tested again.

“The great part is the whole reason this technology and this facility was built was for something like this,” he said. The FastPharming Facility has also been used to produce antibody candidates for Ebola and dengue fever viruses, according to a press release.

As a citizen, Isett said, it is exciting to know that governments, businesses and scientists have been working to have the technologies and facilities in place necessary to address such pandemics.

“Even if it doesn’t come from here, all of these interdependencies, all this kind of work, people looking at innovative new solutions like what iBio has and putting those to work is reassuring to say the least when faced with something like this,” Isett said.

It is significant that iBio has a connection to the area through the Biocorridor, Prochaska said.

“So often what we’re seeing is, whether it’s in the Biocorridor or in other industry sectors, the world is coming to Bryan-College Station and the Brazos Valley, and the Brazos Valley and Bryan-College Station is going to the world,” he said. “We’re having an impact in the world as a community, and iBio is just another great example of a company and industry partner within the community that’s making a difference.”

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