Speech addresses new vaccine technology

Mark Baumgarten

Dr. Charles Arntzen held an audience captive on the St. Paul campus while wielding a banana Monday afternoon. But the audience did not fear harm from the banana-holding man.
Arntzen’s lecture, “Edible Vaccines: From Concept to Human Clinical Trials,” mezmerized the audience. The banana was an example in his message.
Arntzen, president and chief executive officer of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research and University alumni, spoke Monday afternoon in front of more than 100 College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences students and faculty at the Earle Brown Center on the St. Paul campus for the 26th Annual H.K. Hayes Memorial Lecture.
The speech centered on new technology developed by the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in which genetic codes of various plants are altered to create edible vaccines.
The result is a vaccine that may be eaten in the form of fruits and vegetables. This practice will open the door for worldwide health care, Arntzen said.
“Agriculture will be used for specialty purposes,” Arntzen said. “This banana will not only be used for food; it will be used for vaccines.”
One advantage of this oral vaccination process is the access it gives to developing countries that cannot afford conventional vaccinations.
Arntzen’s plan for the edible vaccinations involves giving developing countries the technology to harvest the plants, and then selling them seeds with the genetically introduced disease-causing gene. The immune systems of the people eating genetically altered plants such as bananas will be stimulated, protecting them against a specified disease.
“What we are doing is taking advanced technology and putting it in an affordable package,” Arntzen said. “Many countries can’t afford medicine, but they can afford agriculture.”
Arntzen brought this technology at the request of Ron Phillips, a Regents’ professor in COAFES.
“The Hayes Memorial Lecture has always brought alumni to speak that are involved in interesting research in agriculture,” Phillips said. “But (Arntzen) is doing extremely exciting research which emphasizes the tie between agriculture and health.”
Arntzen, a native of Granite Falls, Minn., earned both his Bachelor of Science degree in 1965 and his Master of Science degree in 1967 from the University.
Students believe Arntzen brings a professional perspective to the subject of their studies at the University.
“This is a great opportunity to see someone successful in the field.” said Joann Mudge, a graduate student in agronomy and plant genetics. “What he is doing is really groundbreaking.”
But Arntzen’s research has not come easily. Dealing with an unconventional vaccination process has been an obstacle.
“We actually had to classify our vaccines as a food additive to get approval from the (Food and Drug Administration),” Arntzen said. “We couldn’t fill out the normal forms for vaccines because we were dealing with food and dirt.”
But people will not be protected from hepatitis B and polio by eating banana splits.
“We will not market it as a commercial food,” Arntzen said. “It will still be treated like a drug.”