Charles Arntzen wants to save the lives of millions of children threatened by deadly infectious diseases, and he wants to do it by feeding them a slice of a banana.
“We know what the problem is,” he says as he leans back in a chair on a courtyard at Arizona State University in Tempe. “We have 15 million kids dying every year in Third World countries from infectious diseases that could be prevented.
“And we know what the solution is,” he adds. It is to inoculate those children with vaccines that can fight off diseases such as hepatitis B, cholera, and various deadly types of diarrhea.
Although major progress has been made in inoculating children in much of the world, in the poorest of the poor nations, little has been achieved. That leaves about 20 percent of the world’s infants vulnerable to horrible diseases, according to the World Health Organization.
Inoculating these impoverished children is almost impossible with the current technology, Arntzen says. Vaccines that are now available have to be injected, with the single exception of the oral polio vaccine. And injections are too expensive and too problematical in much of the world.
“Vaccines need to be refrigerated from the point of manufacture to the point of use,” Arntzen says. “They usually need skilled medical delivery people because they are delivered by needles, and needles are potentially hazardous.” Contaminated needles may do more to spread disease than contain it.
Although philanthropic organizations pick up most of the cost, hundreds of millions of children are left unprotected because an inoculation that may cost pennies to produce is simply out of their reach.
What to do about all of that has consumed Arntzen ever since a 1990 conference in New York City, sponsored by the WHO. The Children’s Vaccine Initiative came out of that meeting, and it changed the life of Arntzen, then a plant biologist at Texas A&M University.
First Potatoes, Tomatoes
Arntzen figured some plants could be genetically modified to produce the proteins that would jump-start the human immune system so it could destroy disease-causing pathogens before they could do their damage. A hepatitis B gene, for example, added to a plant could cause the plant to produce proteins that would be consumed like any other food, and stimulate the immune system to fight hepatitis B. In other words, an edible vaccine.
A short time after the New York conference, while visiting Bangkok, Arntzen watched a young mother soothe a crying baby by feeding the infant a slice of a banana. It struck him then that bananas were the junk food of the Third World, so easily grown that many children eat them as treats.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic, he thought, if a crop that loves to grow in countries that desperately need inoculations could be engineered to produce the vaccine? That would provide a local source that could be grown, harvested and processed in the country where it would be used.
Arntzen set out to do just that, a journey that would take him to Cornell University as president of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, and now to ASU, where he wants to move the research he pioneered over the past decade from the lab to the outside world.