Please tell us about your experience of this website today

New synthetic Polio vaccine candidate visualised at the atomic scale at STFC's Diamond Light Source

15 August 2017

3D model of the surface of the outer shell of the Polio Vaccine

Surface of the outer shell of the Polio Vaccine (3D).
(Credit: University of Oxford and Diamond Light Source, eBIC)

Plants have been used to produce a new vaccine against poliovirus in what is hoped to be a major step towards global eradication of the disease.

A collaborative team of researchers, including the University of Leeds, BBSRC’s John Innes Centre, the University of Oxford, STFC’s Diamond Light Source and The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control has developed a novel synthetic vaccine with a method grown in plants that uses virus-like particles (VLPs) – empty shells that trick immune system into a protective reaction. Genes that carry information to produce VLPs are infiltrated into the plant tissues. The host plant then reproduces large quantities of them using its own protein expression mechanisms.

The team turned to cryo-electron microscopy at Diamond’s Electron Bio-Imaging Centre (eBIC) to obtain a clear look at the structure of the empty shells. They confirmed the structure and showed that the external features of the new synthetic vaccine were identical to those of the poliovirus albeit it had not viral materials within to trigger actual infection. This means that they achieve a protective reaction by stimulating the immune system to respond without causing an infection of poliomyelitis as they do not contain the infectious material that allows viruses to replicate.

The breakthrough was made by employing technology that Diamond had previously used in the design of a new synthetic vaccine to combat the foot and mouth disease virus (FMDV) to target the virus that causes polio.

Dave Stuart, Director of Life Sciences at Diamond and Professor of Structural Biology at University of Oxford explains, “We were inspired by the successful synthetic vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease, also investigated at Diamond as part of UK research collaboration. By using Diamond’s visualisation capabilities we were able to visualise something a billion times smaller than a pinhead and further enhance the design atom by atom of the empty shells. Through information gained at Diamond, we also verified that these have essentially the same structure as the native virus to ensure an appropriate immune response.”

You can read more about the research on the Diamond Light Source website, and on the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) website.

The results are outlined in the journal Nature Communications - Plant-made Polio 3 stabilised VLPs - a candidate synthetic Polio vaccine.

The consortium was funded by the World Health Organisation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which are seeking alternative vaccines that avoid use of the live polio virus as part of an international drive to completely eradicate the disease worldwide.

The John Innes Centre (JIC) is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology and is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

About eBIC at Diamond Light Source

The Electron Bio-Imaging Centre (eBIC) was established at Diamond Light Source following the award of a £15.6 million grant from the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The location of eBIC enables scientists to combine their techniques with many of the other cutting-edge approaches that Diamond offers; whilst a partnership with the University of Oxford allows users to access the Polara, a high-containment cryo-electron microscope.


BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.   More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000