The world's attention has been focused on the coronavirus crisis but Yemen, Bangladesh and many others countries in Asia and Africa are also in the grips of another pandemic: cholera. The current cholera pandemic first emerged in the 1970s and has devastated many communities in low-income countries. Each year, cholera is responsible for an estimated 1.3 million to 4 million cases and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths worldwide.
Immunologist Hiroshi Kiyono and his team at the University of Tokyo hope they can be part of the solution: They're making a cholera vaccine out of rice.
"It is much less expensive than a traditional vaccine, by a long shot."
Cholera is caused by eating food or drinking water that's contaminated by the feces of a person infected with the cholera bacteria, Vibrio cholerae. The bacteria produces the cholera toxin in the intestines, leading to vomiting, diarrhea and severe dehydration. Cholera can kill within hours of infection if it if's not treated quickly.
Current cholera vaccines are mainly oral. The most common oral are given in two doses and are made out of animal or insect cells that are infected with killed or weakened cholera bacteria. Dukoral also includes cells infected with CTB, a non-harmful part of the cholera toxin. Scientists grow cells containing the cholera bacteria and the CTB in bioreactors, large tanks in which conditions can be carefully controlled.
These cholera vaccines offer moderate protection but it wears off relatively quickly. Cold storage can also be an issue. The most common oral vaccines can be stored at room temperature but only for 14 days.
"Current vaccines confer around 60% efficacy over five years post-vaccination," says Lucy Breakwell, who leads the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's cholera work within Global Immunization Division. Given the limited protection, refrigeration issue, and the fact that current oral vaccines require two disease, delivery of cholera vaccines in a campaign or emergency setting can be challenging. "There is a need to develop and test new vaccines to improve public health response to cholera outbreaks."
A New Kind of Vaccine
Kiyono and scientists at Tokyo University are creating a new, plant-based cholera vaccine dubbed MucoRice-CTB. The researchers genetically modify rice so that it contains CTB, a non-harmful part of the cholera toxin. The rice is crushed into a powder, mixed with saline solution and then drunk. The digestive tract is lined with mucosal membranes which contain the mucosal immune system. The mucosal immune system gets trained to recognize the cholera toxin as the rice passes through the intestines.
The cholera toxin has two main parts: the A subunit, which is harmful, and the B subunit, also known as CTB, which is nontoxic but allows the cholera bacteria to attach to gut cells. By inducing CTB-specific antibodies, "we might be able to block the binding of the vaccine toxin to gut cells, leading to the prevention of the toxin causing diarrhea," Kiyono says.
Kiyono studies the immune responses that occur at mucosal membranes across the body. He chose to focus on cholera because he wanted to replicate the way traditional vaccines work to get mucosal membranes in the digestive tract to produce an immune response. The difference is that his team is creating a food-based vaccine to induce this immune response. They are also solely focusing on getting the vaccine to induce antibodies for the cholera toxin. Since the cholera toxin is responsible for bacteria sticking to gut cells, the hope is that they can stop this process by producing antibodies for the cholera toxin. Current cholera vaccines target the cholera bacteria or both the bacteria and the toxin.
David Pascual, an expert in infectious diseases and immunology at the University of Florida, thinks that the MucoRice vaccine has huge promise. "I truly believe that the development of a food-based vaccine can be effective. CTB has a natural affinity for sampling cells in the gut to adhere, be processed, and then stimulate our immune system, he says. "In addition to vaccinating the gut, MucoRice has the potential to touch other mucosal surfaces in the mouth, which can help generate an immune response locally in the mouth and distally in the gut."
Kiyono says the MucoRice vaccine is much cheaper to produce than a traditional vaccine. Current vaccines need expensive bioreactors to grow cell cultures under very controlled, sterile conditions. This makes them expensive to manufacture, as different types of cell cultures need to be grown in separate buildings to avoid any chance of contamination. MucoRice doesn't require such an expensive manufacturing process because the rice plants themselves act as bioreactors.
The MucoRice vaccine also doesn't require the high cost of cold storage. It can be stored at room temperature for up to three years unlike traditional vaccines. "Plant-based vaccine development platforms present an exciting tool to reduce vaccine manufacturing costs, expand vaccine shelf life, and remove refrigeration requirements, all of which are factors that can limit vaccine supply and accessibility," Breakwell says.
Kathleen Hefferon, a microbiologist at Cornell University agrees. "It is much less expensive than a traditional vaccine, by a long shot," she says. "The fact that it is made in rice means the vaccine can be stored for long periods on the shelf, without losing its activity."
A plant-based vaccine may even be able to address vaccine hesitancy, which has become a growing problem in recent years. Hefferon suggests that "using well-known food plants may serve to reduce the anxiety of some vaccine hesitant people."
Challenges of Plant Vaccines
Despite their advantages, no plant-based vaccines have been commercialized for human use. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the potential for too much variation in plants to the lack of facilities large enough to grow crops that comply with good manufacturing practices. Several plant vaccines for diseases like HIV and COVID-19 are in development, but they're still in early stages.
In developing the MucoRice vaccine, scientists at the University of Tokyo have tried to overcome some of the problems with plant vaccines. They've created a closed facility where they can grow rice plants directly in nutrient-rich water rather than soil. This ensures they can grow crops all year round in a space that satisfies regulations. There's also less chance for variation since the environment is tightly controlled.
Clinical Trials and Beyond
After successfully growing rice plants containing the vaccine, the team carried out their first clinical trial. It was completed early this year. Thirty participants received a placebo and 30 received the vaccine. They were all Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 40 years old. 60 percent produced antibodies against the cholera toxin with no side effects. It was a promising result. However, there are still some issues Kiyono's team need to address.
The vaccine may not provide enough protection on its own. The antigen in any vaccine is the substance it contains to induce an immune response. For the MucoRice vaccine, the antigen is not the cholera bacteria itself but the cholera toxin the bacteria produces.
"The development of the antigen in rice is innovative," says David Sack, a professor at John Hopkins University and expert in cholera vaccine development. "But antibodies against only the toxin have not been very protective. The major protective antigen is thought to be the LPS." LPS, or lipopolysaccharide, is a component of the outer wall of the cholera bacteria that plays an important role in eliciting an immune response.
The Japanese team is considering getting the rice to also express the O antigen, a core part of the LPS. Further investigation and clinical trials will look into improving the vaccine's efficacy.
Beyond cholera, Kiyono hopes that the vaccine platform could one day be used to make cost-effective vaccines for other pathogens, such as norovirus or coronavirus.
"We believe the MucoRice system may become a new generation of vaccine production, storage, and delivery system."
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor types, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.