Biotechnology company Medicago (TSX:MDG) now has a facility that needs just 30 days to turn into new flu vaccine the plant that has been the cornerstone of North Carolina’s economy for hundreds of years.

Medicago makes vaccine from the leaves of tobacco plants.

The Quebec City, Canada, company formally opened its $42 million new plant in Research Triangle Park on Monday.

The facility is designed to produce up to 120 million doses of pandemic flu vaccine and 40 million doses of seasonal influenza vaccine annually. Gov. Beverly Perdue called Medicago’s technology an example of North Carolina’s economic and technological transformation.

“When I grew up, tobacco was something you smoked or chewed or dipped,” she said. “Who would have thought it would be used in 21st century vaccines and medical products? That talks a whole lot about the transformation of this state.”

Medicago’s technology uses tobacco plants to make virus-like particles, or VLPs. The technology is developed for use with Nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of the tobacco plant. The VLPs are not the actual influenza virus but they mimic the structure of a virus, prompting an immune system response. But because the VLPs are not actual virus, they cannot infect people and they are unable to replicate.

Medicago needs about 30 days to develop vaccine from leaves of the plant, making it faster than than traditional vaccine-development methods, which use chicken eggs to incubate the virus. That process takes about six months. It’s also faster than a newer cell culture method takes about three months. That’s the technique that will be used by Novartis (NYSE:NVS) in its Holly Springs, N.C., plant.

Speed is what interests U.S. government officials. Medicago’s new vaccine plant was supported by a $21 million contract from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The new factory can hold 90,000 tobacco plants in its huge greenhouse.

DARPA was seeking scalable manufacturing capabilities for vaccines to respond to virus outbreaks, both natural and terrorism-related. DARPA’s “Blue Angel” project aims to find new ways to produce large amounts of vaccine in under three months.

In addition to speed, Mike Wanner, vice president of U.S. operations and head of Medicago’s RTP site, said the technology is also less expensive than traditional vaccine-development methods. Using plants is cheaper than using animals or animal products. It also reduces the risk of viral contamination from animals. The company has positive phase 2 clinical trial results for an H5N1 pandemic flu vaccine and is in phase 1 studies for an H1N1 flu vaccine. Influenza is just the first virus target for Medicago. Wanner said the company’s technology holds the potential to broaden to address other viruses.

“We have a platform technology capable of a very broad range of product development,” Wanner said.

The company is not disclosing additional vaccine targets for now.

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