When people think of tobacco they generally think of negative things like smoking, chewing and related cancers. But despite the health issues that come along with traditional tobacco products, tobacco in its purest form is just a plant, and one that may offer medicinal benefits in a very unique way.
Right now, as the world faces an epidemic of Ebola virus, researchers are scrambling to find new drugs to treat the thousands of people infected. ZMapp, an experimental drug that is credited with saving the lives of two Americans diagnosed with Ebola, is temporarily unavailable; it takes a month to make just a few dozen doses. In light of this and the seriousness of the situation in West Africa, the World Health Organization has decided to allow the use of other experimental drugs that may not have been ready for approval otherwise.
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But what if there was a way to manufacture ZMapp and other medications faster? Such a thing may not be so far-fetched, according to Texas-based biotechnology company Caliber Biotherapeutics, which specializes in using tobacco plants to generate antibiotics and vaccinations.
The process is not about turning a tobacco chemical into an Ebola treatment; the process is about using tobacco plants as the manufacturing powerhouse for already established medications, like ZMapp. According to a report from CNN, many drugs and vaccines are manufactured using mammalian or animal cells.
The flu vaccine, for example, is typically made by injecting chicken eggs with the virus and then harvesting the virus after it has replicated.
Companies like Caliber Biotherapeutics, however, say the same process can be done, just with plant cells and at a fraction of the cost. With plants, there is no need for chicken and chicken eggs, just seeds which are easily harvested from existing plants. All it takes is injecting a gene containing a virus–like Ebola–and then extracting it from the plant leaves where it multiplies.
“Genetic engineering also has made it possible to use plants as factories for pharmaceutical protein production. Plant-made pharmaceuticals are made by inserting a segment of DNA that encodes the protein of choice into plant cells. The plants or plant cells are essentially factories used to produce the desired proteins and are only grown for the purpose of pharmaceutical applications,” states the University of Nebraska (UN). “There are two common methods of transformation (the process by which DNA from one organism is incorporated into the DNA of another organism) that have been established through biotechnology to produce transgenic plants, which, in turn, could be used to create the plants used to make pharmaceutical proteins.”
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The UN also indicates tobacco was the first plant to be genetically engineered and has the advantage of being used as a plant biopharmaceutical because so much research and modification has been done through the process. Tobacco can also be produced multiple times per year; up to one million seeds can be made on a single plant.
What does this mean for Ebola?
No definite plans have been made to use tobacco plants in the manufacturing of Ebola medications, but experts in the field say the need for such pharmaceuticals will likely drive the biopharmaceutical business into higher demand. “Unfortunate as it is, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a huge leg up for the field,” said to CNN, Dr. Kenneth Palmer, who has been studying plant-based pharmaceuticals since 1997. “I think it will only help validate the technology as a viable option.”