Tobacco as Cancer Research Tool
OWENSBORO, Ky. -- The plants stretching their leaves toward the hot Kentucky sun in a greenhouse near here look like any other ordinary tobacco plant. They are anything but. Deep inside their cells, they are furiously cranking out microscopic fragments of
The plants are destined not for a pack of Marlboros, but for a laboratory hard by the Owensboro airport. There, the tiny tumor fragments will be recovered and processed into vaccines designed to treat a type of cancer called lymphoma.
It's a dry run at the moment, but by this fall, vaccines produced this way are to be flown to medical suites across the country and injected into patients, in one of the largest tests to date of whether vaccination can arrest the growth of human tumors.
The shots the patients get will not be of a single, standardized vaccine, but rather of a customized product created specifically for each person's cancer.
The Kentucky project is sponsored by the California company Large Scale Biology Corp., and it chose tobacco -- actually, a close Australian relative of American field tobacco -- not for the satisfaction of using that maligned plant to treat cancer, but simply because tobacco may be the cheapest, fastest vehicle for growing the necessary fragments of tumor.
The project is designed as a test of whether the long-heralded, much-delayed era of "personalized medicine" is finally at hand -- and whether a long history of commercial failure can be overcome to deliver such customized treatments at a tolerable price.
"It may be too early to say we're at the dawn" of the age of personalized medicine, said Robert L. Erwin, chairman and chief executive of Large Scale Biology. "We may be at that very subtle point right before the dawn, where you know it's about to happen, but nobody else does."
His company is by no means the only one trying to use tobacco, or other plants, to grow drugs. Projects to grow drugs in bulk that way are progressing around the country, drawing excitement and a measure of environmental concern.
Nor is Large Scale Biology the only company pursuing personalized medical treatments -- dozens are. Another company and a National Cancer Institute laboratory are well ahead of Large Scale Biology in bringing the idea to lymphoma treatment.
But the Kentucky operation is perhaps the most ambitious attempt in the country to marry the two approaches -- to use potentially cheap production techniques based on plants to create pharmaceuticals customized for individual patients.
Bringing a single new drug to market usually takes 10 years, if all goes well. The people at Large Scale Biology say that eventually, they may be able to produce a customized drug for a patient in six weeks, and to do it thousands of times a year.