Tobacco research could yield medical bonanza
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Research is showing that the tobacco plant may yet provide a bonanza for the medical world and bring a brighter future for small tobacco farmers thinking of calling it quits.
Some scientists are calling tobacco the laboratory mouse of the plant world.Steve Walter is a farmer for whom the future of producing the crop has seemed slim. "It's long-term potential doesn't look too good, especially in this country," he said.
But Carole Cramer, a researcher at Virginia Tech University, sees limitless promise in the green tobacco leaves. Scientists have discovered that the tobacco plant is easy to alter genetically.
"Each one of these (small plants) represent an event where a new piece of DNA has been inserted," she said.
Splicing genes forces production of proteins
So researchers are busy splicing new genes into tobacco to force it to produce proteins normally made in the human body.
"For example, we've got roots that will produce human protein C, an anti-coagulant from your blood," Cramer said.
The proteins would go into bio-tech drugs and vaccines for use against diseases such as HIV and cervical cancer.
"So whether it's a clot-busting drug, or whether it's a vaccine or it turns out to be a heart medication, the fact is that the tobacco plant gives us an opportunity to grow protein materials that otherwise would not be available," said Kenneth Dretchen, a researcher at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Test fields of the new tobacco have already sprouted in southern Virginia. It's not yet clear how much it will cost to grow genetically modified tobacco. The plant is harvested much earlier than usual, so fields could yield three, even four crops a year.
'We put it through ... a paper shredder'
After being picked, the young plants are chopped like cabbage. "Literally, we put it through the equivalent of a paper shredder," Cramer said. "That activates the gene and, over the next 24 hours, it starts cranking out that human protein as fast as possible."
Scientists estimate that drugs from tobacco that can be ready for human use are more than three years away, but these techniques could create new drugs and drastically reduce the cost of existing medicines.
It could also mean a brighter future for tobacco farmers. As Walter said, "After all these years hearing how bad it's been, I think a lot of farmers would be proud to know they could do something beneficial ... something they could be proud of."