Battered growers see hope in genetic engineering new life for tobacco?
South Hill, Va. -- The salesman arrives in this worn-out tobacco town with a laptop and a pitch: He can save Virginia's No. 1 cash crop with the miracle of genetic engineering. Someday soon, he says, tobacco will save lives rather than hasten their end. A
The salesman is Chris Cook, a transplanted Briton who is chief executive of Tobio, a startup that plans to grow human proteins in what he calls "new generation tobacco." The proteins, he predicts, will become key ingredients for the next wave of pharmaceuticals fighting everything from cancer to stroke.
It's a niche within a niche within a niche of the nation's $149 billion drug industry and years away from possible government approval, not to mention profit. Snake oil? Maybe. But in the audience this night are 24 farmers nervous enough about declining demand for tobacco to brave cold rain for a glimpse of a better future. They're listening.
When Cook explains the hook -- that this future will belong to those with faith enough to write personal checks of $2,500 or more for shares of Tobio -- no one flees.
"I think it's worth a shot," said John Manning. "We take big gambles every day farming."
This scene is repeating itself dozens of times as Cook works his way across Virginia's beleaguered tobacco belt, a broad stretch of the state that has missed the economic boom of the past decade.
Cook and other entrepreneurs are trying to convert the farmers' desperation into fuel for innovation. While venture capitalists are looking for safer bets,
Manning and others might provide the seed money for an audacious technological leap, one that could have Virginia's tobacco fields growing the ingredients of human life.
While many states are looking to regulate genetically altered crops, new- generation tobacco is finding enthusiastic support in Virginia.
A partnership to grow and market it has won praise from Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III. A state board used $2 million from Virginia's portion of a national tobacco settlement to give Tobio a low-interest loan. And the Virginia Farm Bureau is helping launch the company in exchange for 15 percent ownership.
Farmers hope new-generation tobacco will pump cash into their ailing communities while restoring their crop's public image.
The technology was born at Virginia Tech, where plant molecular biologist Carole Cramer discovered how to make tobacco grow human proteins. While other scientists had shown the potential, Cramer's innovation was to alter tobacco's genetic code so it produced the proteins only when the leaves are cut.
Wounded plants create proteins to chase off whatever is chomping them. Cramer reasoned that by tricking the plant with a new genetic code, it could be made to react to a cut by producing the human proteins sought by drug companies.
She is chief scientific officer for CropTech, a company she founded in Blacksburg, Va., with her husband, plant geneticist David Radin. They've grown thousands of genetically altered plants that have produced 20 human proteins.
Getting from the lab to the drugstore remains a giant leap. Years of clinical trials lie ahead before the Food and Drug Administration considers granting approval, a process that weeds out four of five new drugs.
Meanwhile, two dozen other mostly small companies around the world are pursuing similar technologies.
If CropTech succeeds in marketing its proteins, Tobio and its farmer- investors will grow the genetically engineered crop in their fields.
"It's a dream," Cook said. "But it's right on the edge of reality."