Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet INDU RUPASSARA, CEO of FruitVaccine Inc., a start-up company at the University of Illinois Research Park founded last year by her and the company's president, Professor Emeritus Dennis Buetow, to develop a fruit-based edible vaccine for the human respiratory syncytial virus (hRSV) as the first project. She has a doctorate in analytical biochemistry.
Why this need?
hRSV infects 100 percent of the global population, causing flu-like symptoms, especially affecting the lower respiratory system such as the lungs. The symptoms can be severe in infants, the elderly, and in immune-suppressed groups such as those who have chronic lung/heart diseases/disorders, and those undergoing certain medical treatments, like chemotherapy.
How did your team, including a veteran pediatrician, decide the delivery method of natural food products as vaccines? Besides children, can the vaccines be used in older people or people with weakened immune systems?
Dennis has done research on a natural plant-based vaccine for hRSV for over a decade. I joined Dennis in 2011, and we both have a common interest in developing natural food-based vaccines, especially for hRSV. Dennis's wife Kathy is a long-term pediatrician at Carle Foundation Hospital. We all see the dire need for a vaccine against hRSV.
Tell us about the development of an edible orally-administered fruit-based vaccine. Also, what plants do you use?
We are developing an orally-administered (fruit-based) vaccine against hRSV, which can be eaten. For infants, a vaccine composed of oral-drops is being developed. There is no vaccine against hRSV in the market. A vaccine would prevent the disease or at least lessen the time a person spends recovering from hRSV disease. Our planned orally-delivered vaccine provides a low cost, environmentally-friendly solution to prevent this disease. We get immunized against hRSV when we eat a few cherry-tomato fruits of these plants. No vaccine for RSV disease in humans is available in the market, and no fruit-based edible vaccine for any disease exists at present.
How will you achieve this before everyone else?
Our vaccine already is effective in mice, based on our research so far. As a group, we are a competitive research team (currently nine members, and expanding) of experienced research biologists with the background and knowledge for vaccine research. We use the latest state-of-the-art technologies in our vaccine research, and employ the single, most potent protein of the virus, not the whole virus. We will test the vaccine for its usefulness by using the cotton rat, an animal which is highly susceptible to RSV disease, before testing our vaccine in humans. An edible fruit-based vaccine will have no toxicities, side-effects or pain, as potentially associated with injectable vaccines.
Does that make it especially useful in small children?
Yes. Small children are not fans of needle-based vaccines as we know. They would rather eat a fruit and get vaccinated by it if that option is available. We have spoken with over 100 customers including parents, kids, academics, pharmacists, pharmaceutical industry specialists, and medical doctors. They realize the need for a vaccine against hRSV. They are highly supportive (about 90 percent in our recent survey) of our no-needle delivery method.
Have you recently received any grants or awards?
We have received an I-Start Award from the Research Park in Champaign, and an award from the city of Champaign through the Small Business Development Center. Currently we have applied for government grants and are actively looking into investor funding. As we secure our financial status, we will hire specialized employees to expedite our research achievements, and to come up with the final/complete vaccine product.
You also seem to have worked out the economics, even for delivery in a third world country. These vaccines are environmentally friendly and can be locally grown and sold.
Will you be able to expand this method to indigenous plants?
Yes, once our vaccine technology is developed using cherry-tomatoes, we can test other food plants such as strawberries, carrots and lettuce. We prefer such short-term crops, not long-term crops such as apple which take several years to bear fruits. Our technology can expand beyond the U.S.
Who else is on you team?
All have doctorates: Kathleen Buetow (also an M.D.), Edwin Moore, Charles Arntzen , John Hennessey, Hugh Mason, Jose Solbiati and Jagdeep Sandhu.
What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?
Listen to your inner-self carefully to determine your passionate desires and the marketable niche you want to enter. Talking and listening to experts in your areas of interest and some research to investigate the potential avenues to make your dreams come true will help.
Did you ever make any mistakes in your early years?
Yes, and we learn from them. I learned from both the success stories and mistakes. We move forward in our life journey applying the lessons learned in a constructive way, with a positive attitude.
TECH TIDBITS ... with INDU RUPASSARA
Favorite app: Have several, not only one, and frequently use Skype, Viber, Illini Bus, and Google Maps.
On Facebook I follow ... Updates/comments/posts from friends.
Do you have any wearable electronics? Yes, wireless earphones.
Do you have an entrepreneur hero? I like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as a combo. So much to learn from their fruitful life-journeys!