Cervical Cancer Has New Enemy in Tobacco
Scientists are trying to smoke out a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer - by tweaking the tobacco plant.
Researchers at Georgetown University and North Carolina State hope to cultivate a cancer-fighting protein by genetically altering the crop blamed for millions of deaths a year.
"I appreciate the irony, but from a scientific vantage point, it presents an opportunity," said Kenneth Dretchen, dean of research at Georgetown.
The goal of the experiments is to create a vaccine against human papillomavirus - one of the primary causes of cervical cancer, which kills 5,000 women a year.
The researchers believe they can do this by taking genetic material from the virus, introducing it into tobacco plants and then extracting a specific protein.
The protein would then be used in a vaccine that, hopefully, would trigger antibodies against human papillomavirus and drastically reduce cervical cancer cases.
The Georgetown team has already created a laboratory-cultivated vaccine to try on dogs, but it needs to come up with a cheaper and more efficient method.
Enter the North Carolina State scientists, who have been able to introduce the virus DNA into tobacco plants and grow plants that have the right protein.
The next step is to try the tobacco-generated vaccine on a dog with the canine form of papillomavirus. After that, the researchers could look toward human trials.
The cervical-cancer study is only the latest research to take advantage of genetically modified tobacco. A Virginia biotech firm is working with the crop to clone a possible HIV vaccine.
Rebecca Boston, a professor of botany at North Carolina State, said tobacco is ideal because it has large leaves, grows fast and yields four to five crops a summer.
In fact, if the HPV vaccine works out, it could be the start of a whole new market for tobacco growers, who face declining demand for cigarettes.
That explains why North Carolina lawmakers pushed $3 million in research funding into a farm-aid bill that is waiting for President Clinton's signature.