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Engineered tobacco finding place in Ebola treatment

By Staff | Nov 27, 2014

NICOTIANA BENTHALMIANA is a genetically engineered relative of tobacco. It is being farmed indoors as a host plant for developing a vaccine for treatment of Ebola.


Perhaps it’s agriculture to the rescue.

Researchers in the U.S. are now looking at a relative of tobacco, Nicotiana benthamiana, as part of a cure in treating Ebola.

Studies are looking at the properties in this plant to be part of a cocktail of three antibodies for the treatments.

Established agricultural practices used for growing fruit and vegetables indoors are being used to grow Nicotiana for this research. The plant, found growing in Australia where it was first used as a stimulant (containing nicotine and other alkaloids) prior to the introduction of commercial tobacco, is currently awaiting Federal Drug Administration approval.

-Contributed photo DR. KENNETH PALMER, a researcher at the University of Louisville, in Louisville, Kentucky, snips a leaf sample from a Nicotiana benthalmiana plant.

Nicotiana benthamiana, the first plant to be genetically engineered, will speed vaccine production as a single plant is capable of producing up to 1 million seeds multiple times a year.

Dr. Kenneth Palmer, of Owensboro Cancer Research Program, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, has studied plant-based pharmaceuticals since 1997.

Palmer said the initial plant-produced Ebola vaccine is a viable option and one validating the importance of plant-based vaccines.

Palmer said Nicotiana is used as “an expression host. The vaccine has no components of tobacco.

“The agricultural production of Nicotiana benthamiana occurs in large indoor growth rooms,” Palmer said. “(There is) no Nicotiana for drug production occurring outdoors using traditional field-based agricultural practices.

“The manufacturing process uses industrial horticulture practices similar to those used for indoor production of vegetables and horticultural products.”

On-going academic research using Nicotiana to produce proteins for human and veterinary health care will continue at Louisville, Palmer said, in addition to other research elsewhere strengthening efforts for successful treatment of Ebola and other medical issues.

“Manufacturing of the Nicotiana benthamiana must be scaled up,” he said. “Further investment in the technology is necessary.

“There must also be an awareness that it takes time to manufacture large amounts of a new product such as the Ebola vaccine.”

The plant’s role

In an Aug. 5 article posted by Arizona State University news service, Dr. Charles Arntzen, an ASU Regents’ Professor in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Biodesign Institute, said this experimental treatment is the result of Mapp Biopharmaceutical, of San Diego, and two other companies.

The process involves injecting the engineered virus into a tobacco plant in this instance from tobacco leaves grown at the Louisville study site.

Once the plant is susceptible to the Ebola infection the “cloned antibodies attach themselves to the Ebola cells,” Arntzen said, “they then destroy the viruses.”

Medicinal tobacco

An Oct. 15 Indian County Today Media Network report said tobacco, long considered “a medicine in traditional (Native American cultures) may in its engineered form be a key in production of a gel preventing HIV, cancer, cholera or cervical cancers.

Preston Duncan, 76, one of 1,400 enrolled tribal members of the Meskwaki Nation, in Tama, said some tribal members have used wetted tobacco products for treatment of bee stings or poison ivy.

It suggests, Duncan said, tobacco as a healing agent is being revered again in the modern age and is consistent with Native Americans’ ceremonial beliefs.

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