Hope Seen in Tobacco That Heals
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
CropTech, a lab in Blacksburg, Va., grows genetically engineered tobacco that is hoped to produce drugs to cure cancer, AIDS, and other diseases some day.The salesman is Chris Cook, a transplanted Brit who is chief executive of Tobio, a start-up 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, 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 are listening.
"We believe this is a great opportunity," said Cook, a former farmer who came to the United States in search of opportunity. "We need your help so we can help you."
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 the room. Nearly every farmer walks away this night with a sign-up sheet and a prospectus.
"I think it's worth a shot," said John Manning, who at 43 is one of the younger farmers in the room. "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 southern stretch of the state that has missed the economic boom of the past decade. As Northern Virginia became the front line of the Internet revolution, Southside and Southwest Virginians watched mills and factories close. Demand for once-mighty tobacco sagged so badly that government regulators nearly halved quotas for the crop.
Cook and other entrepreneurs are trying to convert the desperation of these farmers 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 Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). 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.
The aggressiveness of Virginia's effort has drawn attention in other tobacco-growing states.
"It galls the hell out of me," said Arthur K. Weissinger, a professor of crop science at North Carolina State University, where some of the technology for growing genetically altered plants was pioneered. "I've been trying to interest North Carolina in this for 12 years."
The risks of investing in Tobio, which is a new economy version of a farmers cooperative, are dramatic. The company hopes to raise $6 million by the end of May. The prospectus lists eight pages of risk factors, saying bluntly, "You should purchase shares only if you can afford a complete loss."
Yet having watched technology bestow riches on those in Northern Virginia and beyond, farmers find Tobio tantalizing. New generation tobacco, they hope, will pump cash into their ailing communities while restoring their crop's public image.
"It looks like a good direction for tobacco to grow, to keep being able to grow a crop that's been grown in my family for five generations," said Buck Farrar, 30. "Instead of growing a crop that's being ridiculed around the country," he looks forward "to doing some good."
The technology was born at Virginia Tech, where plant molecular biologist Carole L. Cramer discovered a way to make tobacco grow human proteins. Other scientists had shown the potential. Cramer's innovation was to alter tobacco's genetic code so that 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 now chief scientific officer for CropTech, a company she founded in Blacksburg, Va., with her husband, David N. Radin, a plant geneticist. In a nondescript building in a nondescript office park on the outskirts of the university town, they have grown thousands of genetically altered plants that have produced 20 human proteins. The tobacco begins producing them right after a shredder slices the leaves, triggering the plants' altered genes.
Getting from the lab to the drugstore remains a giant leap. No drug with a protein grown by CropTech has even been tested in a human. Years of clinical trials lie ahead before the Food and Drug Administration considers granting approval, a process that weeds out four of every five new drugs.
And competitors are working the same markets. Two dozen other mostly small companies around the world are pursuing similar technologies. Some are growing human proteins in alfalfa, others in potatoes or corn.
If CropTech succeeds in marketing its proteins, Tobio and its farmer-investors will grow the genetically engineered crop in their fields. Company projections show a demand for 20,000 acres of the altered tobacco by decade's end and 50,000 acres by 2015. That's nearly twice as much acreage as is now under cultivation in Virginia for cigarette, pipe and chewing tobacco. Processing facilities would extract the proteins from the leaves, producing more jobs throughout the region.
"It's a dream," Cook said. "But it's right on the edge of reality."
Biopharmaceuticals, which are drugs made in an organic process, are a fast-growing part of the drug industry, going from less than 1 percent of the U.S. market in 1989 to 7 percent last year. Some of those drugs already use the types of human proteins that CropTech hopes to grow, but they are being produced in more costly ways.
Scientists say tobacco might be able to grow those proteins faster, cheaper and safer than the systems used now, which rely on animal cells that are vulnerable to contamination by human disease.
CropTech also hopes to quell concerns about the safety of genetically altered plants by having farmers harvest new generation tobacco before it produces seeds that could accidentally spread. Cramer said CropTech's system should prevent genetically altered tobacco from escaping into the environment. And if that did happen, she said it would be unlikely to lead to broader contamination because the plants would die without careful tending. Only plants put in a shredder -- or wounded accidentally -- would produce human proteins.
"Altering one protein will not change what the tobacco looks like, will not in any way make it human," Cramer said.
Several farmers across Virginia already have experimented with new generation tobacco, growing it on test plots over the past year. One of them is 63-year-old Jerry Jenkins, of Lunenburg County, who wrote a check for $10,000 to become a charter investor in Tobio two years ago. He and 30 others raised an initial $250,000, investing not just money but their reputations in the venture.
"There's money in pharmaceuticals, and I see this as an opportunity for us to get some of it," Jenkins told the farmers gathered in South Hill. He urged them to act boldly. "Look who's all involved in software, but Bill Gates is still the king because he was the first one there."