Tobacco discovered as agent for proteins to make medicine
Lifesaving drugs could soon be produced more efficiently, naturally and economically with the help of tobacco -- the same tobacco implicated in illness, disability and death.
Researchers have discovered that by introducing a human gene into tobacco, the plant can be used as the growing agent for human proteins. Currently, such proteins are extracted from human tissue in a painstaking process.
Tobacco-grown proteins can be used to manufacture pharmaceuticals that treat a variety of illnesses, from heart disease to HIV.
``Tobacco is a great host for growing protein,'' said Greg Hicks, communications director of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. ``It's like putting an aspirin in and getting back a whole bottle of aspirin.''
Researchers at Virginia Tech started looking into the unique qualities of tobacco leaves about a decade ago. In 1993, around the time the research project was announced, they speculated that it would take another 10 years to perfect the process, and that tobacco could be used to produce perhaps a half-dozen expensive drugs.
They underestimated the potential, researchers say today.
With these latest developments, the economic impact on Virginia could be significant. Tobacco farmers, struggling to stay afloat, would suddenly have a new demand for their product. ``This could mean a need for more tobacco land than the entire state of Virginia has to offer,'' Hicks said.
And the future isn't years away. Tobacco processing facilities may be on line in less than three years.
For Joshua Booth and his family, the research can't move quickly enough.
At ``tree and tree-quarters,'' Joshua can spell his name and knows the first letter of his mother's name. He's active, healthy and already showing signs of above-average intelligence.
And it will stay that way, his parents say, as long as Joshua travels from his Hampton home every two weeks to Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters. There, he undergoes two-hour intravenous enzyme treatments for Gaucher's (go-SHAYS) Disease, which cost $2,990 each.
Multiply by 26. That's $77,740 a year to keep Joshua alive and well.
Joshua was born without a certain enzyme necessary to break down fat. Without it, a particular kind of fat called glucocerebrosidase accumulates, mostly in the liver, spleen and bone marrow. The disease can result in pain, fatigue, jaundice, bone damage, anemia and even death.
The disease is so rare that Joshua is one of only about 2,500 people in the United States who have it. It's most common among people of Eastern European ancestry.
For now, Joshua's parents, Rabbi David Booth and his wife, Carol, have insurance to pay for his treatments. But the Booths can't help but ask themselves: What happens when Joshua grows up? As his body increases in size, his need for Cerezyme, one of the world's most expensive medicines, also must increase. It will likely cost about $150,000 a year. And what happens when he needs to get his own health insurance?
With tobacco, his future could be affordable.
Scientists who have been experimenting with tobacco say the cost of such expensive drugs as Cerezyme could be reduced to no more than a few hundred dollars a year. That's because tobacco can produce the proteins needed for the drugs in greater quantities.
The same burley and flue-cured varieties that Virginia farmers have grown since Colonial times have the ability to heal themselves. In other words, if a bug comes along in the field and nibbles at a leaf, the plant immediately starts throwing out cells to rebuild the damage.
That property means it's a great host for quickly growing protein.
``Tobacco is one of the most easily transgenically altered plants,'' Cook said. ``It produces large quantities of protein.''
And just maybe, it means a future for Virginia's tobacco farmers. Experts estimate that tobacco-produced biopharmaceuticals may ultimately require hundreds of thousands of acres to satisfy worldwide markets for tobacco-grown proteins.
Tobacco is Virginia's largest field crop, representing nearly $191 million in the state's economy last year. And the state, where 54,000 acres were planted in 1999, is the fourth-largest producer of tobacco among the 16 states where it's grown.
In the field, tobacco that has been only slightly altered genetically will look like any other tobacco, said Chris Cook, agricultural enterprise development coordinator for the farm bureau federation's commodity department.
Other research facilities use corn and soybeans in similar experiments, Cook said, but it's the seeds of those plants that must be genetically altered. That creates more risk of environmental contamination.
``The sexy thing about this system is that it doesn't produce this protein until it goes into the processing plant,'' Cook said. ``There are no risks because the tobacco isn't allowed to go to seed.''
A company made up of about 20 farmers/investors is forming a corporation to build processing plants across the state in tobacco-growing regions.
The ``new generation'' tobacco offers farmers bigger profits, because the crop has to grow for only about two months. The plan is to harvest three -- perhaps four -- crops a year.
``We will actually harvest the crop in a green, leafy stage,'' Cook said. ``We'll use the green material, cut 18 inches from the ground.''
Harvesting will be almost like ``cutting the grass,'' Cook said, with the stalk left to sprout another crop. From the field, stems and leaves will be taken into the factories, washed and shredded like coleslaw. And the genetically treated plants will start spewing their precious proteins.
The factories will produce the raw material for the pharmaceutical companies, which manufacture end-product drugs. It will be up to the pharmaceutical companies to purify and refine the proteins, but it's less risky than working with human-produced proteins because tobacco isn't susceptible to human diseases and viruses.
The first drugs from this process are estimated to be available in 18 to 36 months, Cook said.
The Virginia Farm Bureau, working with the research company CropTech, has been charged with raising funds for the company, called TobioLLC.
Farmers interested in growing the new tobacco will be the first offered an opportunity to invest in the company, Cook said. Because the demand for tobacco has declined by as much as 50 percent over the last several years, this potential industry offers a new beginning for Virginia tobacco growers.
``It's so amazing that a plant that's had so much bad press and has been so stigmatized all of a sudden could become a lifesaver,'' Cook said.
There are currently about 500 companies in the United States with more than 800 biopharmaceutical products under development.
``Currently, the market for these products is $15 billion and is expected to grow to $50 billion within the next 15 years,'' said Dr. Brandon Price, chief executive officer of Blacksburg-based CropTech.
Cook said stock in the company, called a cooperative by the farmers group, should go on the market within two to three months.
The medication that keeps Joshua Booth going wasn't developed until after he was born.
``It makes me a great fan of drug companies,'' David Booth said, smiling at his son. ``They have developed some great technology. They should absolutely be encouraged to do their thing.''
The Booths have kept up with all of the latest research on medications that would treat Gaucher's, and they're aware of the potential for tobacco.
``It's divine partnership,'' the rabbi said, smiling. ``They've found it's easy to splice DNA material onto tobacco. It's a great example of man working in conjunction with God.''