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Genetically engineered fruits and vegetables that make the body immune to contagious diseases may one day replace some vaccination shots, according to a study published Tuesday.

A protein gene that creates immunity to hepatitis B has been transferred to potato plants, and mice fed the special spud developed antibodies against the disease, researchers report Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.The scientists said that it may be possible to manipulate other vegetables and fruits to immunize against other diseases.

Experimenters at Texas A&M and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., said they transferred a gene that makes an antigen against hepatitis B from yeast to tobacco and then to potatoes.

Hugh Mason, a Texas A&M co-author of the study, said mice fed the genetically engineered potato developed an immune system resistance to the disease. He said the experiment shows that it may be possible one day to grow fruit or vegetables that carry vaccination genes against other diseases.

"The idea is to produce an edible plant that contains genes that cause it to produce antigens," Mason said in an interview. The antigens, absorbed in the gut along with the food, would cause the body to produce antibodies against the target disease. "We hope that many such vaccines could be developed," he said.

The protein gene introduced into the plants could not cause disease but would train the body's immune system to recognize and attack a disease bacteria or virus, Mason said. Injected vaccines work generally the same way.

He said it will be at least 10 years before fruit or vegetables from vaccine plants can be tested on humans.

In an experiment reported in Proceedings, the scientists inserted the hepatitis B antigen gene into tobacco plants and then injected mice with extracts made from the plants. The mice developed antibodies similar to the response that occurs after injection of a commercial hepatitis B vaccine.