Vallejo hometown advantage: Touro's Alison McCormick tweaks tobacco's legacy

Patricia Kutza
Vallejo Community Issues Examiner; May 24, 2012

Nicotiana benthamiana...

That string of letters may feel like a mouthful.  But to Touro University Associate Professor Dr. Alison McCormick, they are just household words.  And attractive ones to boot.  In fact McCormick, thanks to her newly acquired Grand Challenges Exploration Grant, will be spending lots of time with this tobacco plant as she tests the ability of a low-cost plant-based synthetic biology method to  produce complex molecules capable of making low-cost vaccines.

"I love these plants." McCormick told us this week.  " I’ll be setting up a greenhouse in the next four weeks, which I am very excited about.  I have been able to do a lot of work without plants due to my collaborations, but I am moving into a new research phase with the Gates grant, and it is going to be great to work with plants again."

Exclusive interview - Part Two

In the second part of our exclusive interview with Dr. McCormick, McCormick shares what kind of career decisions she  made along the way.  That way eventually landed her at Touro University's Department of Pharmacy, where she was honored recently with two prestigious grants that will support her groundbreaking tobacco plant research.

"I went to Iowa State University (BS), then University of California San Diego (Ph.D) and then I did my postdoctoral work at Stanford.  I moved to Touro University California in 2006, after working in industry (in Vacaville) for 10 years.

 This grant will fund very exploratory research, and will promote development of a kind of vaccine that I have been working on for about six years.  I have been working on plant made proteins and vaccines since 1996. This particular project is an extension of preliminary work I did with colleagues at Large Scale Biology Corporation in 2004. LSBC is no longer in operation, unfortunately, but the work goes on. 

Personally, I am grateful for the opportunity to work with a prestigious institution like the Gates foundation, who really focus on human health issues in underserved areas.  It is an honor to be selected to recieve this kind of funding.  If we are successful in our one year project, we hope to do more work to test the vaccine in a disease state model.  Gates offers additional funding for advancing successful projects into more clinically focused areas of research, which I hope to apply for when this grant period has ended.   

There is ongoing and extensive development of vaccine production in plants, and it is great to see so much activity recently in clinical trial testing of plant-made influenza vaccines.  My work will enhance the range of vaccines that can currently be made in tobacco plants, which I hope will be a significant contribution to the field."

Patricia Kutza is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist. When not writing, she can be found mastering her camel-spin on ice, photographing outdoor murals, or catching halibut in San Pablo Bay. She welcomes feedback at

photo credit: Dr. Alison McCormick
photo credit: Dr. Alison McCormick