Harnessing The Tobacco Plant To Fight Ebola

The first reported case in the Ebola outbreak currently ravaging West Africa dates back to December 2013, in a forest area of Guinea called Guéckédou, which is a small community near the border with Liberia and Sierra Leone. As of May 3rd 2015, over 26,628 Ebola cases (and 11,020 Ebola deaths) have been reported worldwide, the vast majority of them outside of the United States, where public health officials are looking for a way to develop more doses of the only somewhat-effective experimental drug ZMapp, which is engineered from antibodies harvested in mice.

As questions about the efficacy of ZMapp persist, researchers are now looking to an unassuming plant that might hold the answer to Ebola’s seemingly-unsolvable problem: an effective, cost-cutting technique called “biopharming.”

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According to a report in CNN, the new technique might provide a way for scientists to develop the ZMapp serum through tobacco plants, a task first assigned to the biopharmaceutical company Kentucky BioProcessing. (The company has been working in collaboration with San Diego-based Mapp Biophamaceutical, who originally developed the ZMapp vaccine.)

While the process of manufacturing vaccines using egg-based and mammalian cell-based products can cost around $150 million each year, Tobacco plants can produce antibodies in much less time for a fraction of the cost, advocates say. Texas-based biotechnology company Caliber Biotherapeutics has claimed that it is capable of fast-tracking Tobacco-sourced versions of ZMapp if need be. The company, which says it operates the largest tobacco-based pharmaceutical facility in the world, has been working on cutting costs and increasing quantities of certain cancer drugs through genetically modified tobacco.

The precedent for harnessing tobacco for use in medical advancement is well-documented. Medicago Inc., a biopharmaceutical company in North Carolina, once produced 10 million flu vaccines in 30 days using tobacco plants in a federally funded effort called “Blue Angel.” (The program tested the prospect of rapid vaccine production in the hypothetical case of a global health pandemic, and it is estimated the company could make as many as 100 million doses for as little as $36 million.) The Canadian biopharmaceutical company PlantForm is also looking into using tobacco to produce a drug that reduces the growth rate of breast cancer tumors. Because the plants are easy to contain and manufacture in controlled environments such as greenhouses, Ebola researchers view the plant as a hotbed of untapped potential.

Still, no treatments developed through tobacco plants have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, even though the process of biopharming tobacco for use in Ebola drugs is relatively simple.

The proposed tobacco-sourced ZMapp would be developed in the same way that tobacco-sourced HIV drugs are made.

First, scientists isolate a protein called griffithsin, which can be found in red algae. This protein fends off HIV by sticking onto the outer surface of an HIV-infected cell and shielding non-infected cells from the virus. Once isolated, griffithsin is injected into the tobacco plant and extracted 12 days later. After this incubation period it is then crushed, purified, and mixed into a gel that can be used as a lubricant.

While there are lingering concerns over biopharming’s potential to contaminate the food supply (as Tobacco is sometimes processed in conjunction with other food products), researchers remain hopeful. With this much potential growing amongst the weeds, scientists are increasingly looking to the Tobacco plant as a viable agent in the fight to quell a host of as-yet incurable diseases– both now and in the future.

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