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[CAIRO] Egyptian scientists have genetically engineered maize plants to produce a protein used to make the hepatitis B virus vaccine. They hope that their findings could eventually lead to the creation of an edible vaccine that could be locally produced and would dispense with the need for expensive vaccination programmes.

More than 2 billion people are infected with hepatitis B, and about 350 million of these are at high risk of serious illness and death from liver damage and liver cancer.

A vaccine against the disease is already available, but the Egyptian researchers say that edible vaccines produced by GM plants would be cheaper and would not need to be refrigerated.

A team of researchers led by Hania El-itriby, director of Cairo's Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute, developed GM maize plants that produce the protein known as HbsAg, which elicits an immune response against the hepatitis B virus and could be used as a vaccine.

The scientists are now attempting to increase the amount of the protein produced by the plants. They have not yet tested the effectiveness of the edible vaccine in animals and humans, but expect that tests will start early next year.

Reporting the results at an international conference on genetic engineering and biotechnology in Cairo last month, El-itriby said that producing a cheap, effective vaccine against the disease is vital, as many people are excluded from immunisation programmes because of the expense of the vaccines.

She added that her team's research is a step towards a cheap, edible vaccine for developing countries that would not require refrigerators for storage, or skilled medical personnel and needles to deliver the vaccine.

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