VACCINES against a whole range of diseases could be put into soft drinks and ordinary foodstuffs such as confectionery, fruit and yoghurt, according to a Scots scientist.
Dr John March, of the Moredun Research Institute near Edinburgh, is investigating a new method that allows vaccines to be administered orally rather than by injection.
This raises the prospect of immunising the general population with specially modified food - something which could be particularly useful in Third World countries with few health service facilities.
Currently, putting vaccines in food is not particularly effective because they are often destroyed in the stomach.
Dr March’s method, which uses DNA vaccine in a harmless bacterial virus "container", has been shown to be more effective in early tests. He is hoping to trial a cancer vaccine within two years, as revealed in The Scotsman yesterday.
"Once all the development and testing work has been completed, what we hope to achieve are ‘vaccines in a pill’, capable of cheap, local manufacture anywhere in the world, administered without the need for cold chains [networks of cold storage facilities], needles and dedicated medical staff ," he said.
"In effect, they would be stored and bought off the shelf from the local store. Who knows? If they can be added to food and drink we may be able to vaccinate a child against malaria by giving them a drink of Coca-Cola."
Dr March said the developing world would benefit particularly because mass immunisation of the population would be far easier and cheaper.
He has been in touch with scientists in the US who have been developing a genetically altered banana containing a vaccine against papilloma virus, the main cause of the most common form of cervical cancer.
"The idea is, when you eat the banana you get vaccinated against it [papilloma virus]. But it doesn’t work very well - it gets deactivated when it goes through the stomach," he said.
Dr March even suggested a particularly radical move - putting vaccines into cigarettes.
"This is all theoretical at this point, but you could use all the vices people have to deliver vaccines - in a beer, in a can of Coke or even in a cigarette," he said.
Jack Winkler, director of the independent Food and Health Research organisation, who has examined "functional foods" which are produced ready- fortified with vitamins, minerals and increasingly medicines, said there was an on-going debate between "the principled" and "the pragmatists".
The latter argue that some people will always eat what is bad for them so vitamins, other beneficial products or medicines should be put into unhealthy food to help them.
The "principled" argue that anything which encourages or reassures people about eating unhealthy food is a bad idea.
Mr Winkler, who said he was an "unashamed pragmatist", said: "This is a public health issue. It’s no good fortifying aubergines because not many people eat them. When you start thinking about functional food, you have to do it with something people eat.
"The answer the Japanese came up with was to put them in soft drinks and then confectionery. This drives Western nutritionists mad - to them this is dressing up unhealthy food, trying to make it healthy."
He said people’s fear of medicating food was a 20th-century attitude. The technique was simply an extension of adding vitamins to breakfast cereals.
Pro-Activ and Benecol drinks use a plant derivative that was a licensed drug in the US in the 1950s, to reduce cholesterol.
"Far from finding it creepy, children today would find it preferable to an injection. They haven’t been raised in the tradition where getting a vaccination meant going to see a doctor in a white coat who says, ‘This won’t hurt very much, but ... "