Just a Spoonful of Soybeans

A biotech start-up at UNC Charlotte could revolutionize how we take medicines by using soybean seeds. Scientists are inserting the DNA from viruses in the protein-rich seeds of soybeans, and believe eating the modified soybeans can turn the human immune system in the gut on or off against various diseases.

There’s a good reason the soybean is nicknamed “The Miracle Crop.” 

The simple bean has a multitude of uses. Soybean oil is used in cooking oil, which is found in cakes, breads, and all types of food products. The oil is also used for biodiesel fuel. The fiber that is left over is used in animal feed and is starting to be used in building materials.

With all of those uses, it’s no surprise the soybean is grown in all 100 North Carolina counties. About 1.6 million acres of soybeans were planted in 2013 and the number of acres is expected to hold steady in 2014.

Those numbers could expand in the future, especially if a small biotech company based at UNC Charlotte can turn its discovery into a viable product.

“Most people see these as soybean seeds,” says Ken Piller, the Co-Founder and President of Soymeds, as he sits in a growing room in Woodward Hall on the UNC Charlotte campus. “I see this as a technology that can solve a lot of problems.”

The room is filled with three-month-old genetically-engineered soybean plants. Piller says by the fourth month the leaves will start to yellow. The beans will be harvested at five months.

But these are not ordinary soybeans, although they do not look any different from traditional soybeans. Their unique feature is found inside the bean. More precisely, it is found inside the protein part of bean. Protein makes up almost 38% of the soybean.

“Each of these pods produce three seeds a piece and each plant will produce about 100 seeds, which can then be crushed into a powder and the protein can be extracted and used in a soymilk formula,” adds Piller, as he breaks apart a pod to show me the inside. Although the seeds are tiny, what Soymeds hopes to do with them could be a huge medical breakthrough.

“If that was turned into an oral therapeutic, the seeds from one plant represent about 100 doses of a therapeutic,” explains Piller, showing how just a few plants could solve major health issues. “If this were to be purified into a vaccine, it represents about 10,000 doses of a vaccine that might be administered in 10 micrograms.”

In Soymeds’ vision, the vaccine of the future could be made from the simple soybean. Piller and his partner in the company, Ken Bost, are both biology professors at UNC Charlotte. The company they founded is a spinoff from the university. The professors found the soybean can turn the body’s immune system on and off. It’s kind of like a light switch. The key lies in the amount of protein found in a soybean seed, which is roughly 38 percent.

It turns out the body’s largest immune system is in the gut. The gut breaks down large molecules of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and other items into smaller molecules, which are then absorbed and carried throughout the body. What’s more, that immune system responds best to proteins. Simply introducing the proteins from a virus into the gut will trigger a response, which will then be carried throughout the body.

So the researchers at Soymeds have genetically introduced vaccine proteins into soybean proteins. It creates, essentially, a pharmaceutical soybean. Think vaccine, in a bean.

“We’re letting the soybean seed do what nature has already endowed it to do, make a lot of protein and store it in a very compact space,” explains Ken Bost, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer with Soymeds. “That concentrates the protein and allows it to be packed into a small amount of biomass. We can then engineer seeds to express the protein that is targeted to that specific place, to those specific cells in the gut.”

Both scientists envision children in the future drinking a glass of soymilk that contains a polio vaccine, as they read about how vaccines were once delivered through injections. To make that possible, the soymilk would be made with specially-grown beans in which the proteins have been designed to provide immunity from a specific disease.

Drink the glass and let the proteins in the bean and the gut do their work. Beans containing proteins that turn on the body’s immune system would protect against polio. Beans with proteins that turn the immune system off can help people with auto-immune diseases, where their own immune systems fight healthy cells.

This type of genetic engineering isn’t new. Scientists were working in the field 20-30 years ago using potatoes. However, it was never developed out of concern for the amount of protein that needed to be consumed to make it effective. There was also the question of what to do with all of the excess plant material.

Soymeds believes using the soybean addresses those concerns. Because of the high protein content of soybean seeds, large amounts of target proteins for vaccines and therapeutics can be obtained from a relatively small number of soybean plants. So, the medicinal soybeans designed to counter specific viruses could be grown in small, specially-designed and secured growing rooms. Those specially-designed soybeans could be made at a low cost, stored long term and shipped easily. A limited number of plants with specifically-designed seeds could produce large quantities of vaccine.

“We have the ability to take soybean seeds, or the powder that can be made from them, and store it for years,” says Bost. ”We’ve experimented with seeds that express a particular protein and five years later found that there had been no degradation or loss of the protein at all. So the ability to store these proteins for years after it has been produced is a huge advantage.”

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