A research team at Iowa State University (ISU) is putting flu vaccines into the genetic makeup of corn, which could mean pigs and humans get a flu vaccination simply by eating corn or corn products.

“We're trying to figure out which genes from the swine influenza virus to incorporate into corn so those genes, when expressed, would produce protein. When the pig consumes that corn, it would serve as a vaccine,” remarks D.L. “Hank” Harris, DVM, professor in animal science and one of the ISU researchers on the innovative project.

The project is a collaborative effort with Harris and Brad Bosworth, an affiliate associate professor of animal science working with pigs, and Ken Wang, a professor in agronomy, who is developing the vaccine traits in the corn.

The corn vaccine would also work in humans who eat corn, corn flakes, corn tortillas or any food product that contains corn, Harris says.

The corn vaccine may be possible in five to seven years if the research goes well. But the team is trying to speed up the process.

“While we are waiting for Wang to produce the corn, we are starting initial experiments in mice to show that the vaccine might induce an immune response,” Bosworth says.

Harris says the team needs more answers. “The big question is whether or not these genes will work when given orally through corn,” he says. “That is the thing we've still got to determine.”

Key features of this potential corn vaccine are its potential stability and safety. Once the corn containing the vaccine is grown, it can be stored long term without losing its potency, the researchers say.

And when a swine flu outbreak occurs, the corn could be shipped to the area to try to vaccinate pigs and people alike.

Because corn grain is used as food and feed, there would be no need for extensive vaccine purification, often a costly process.