Tobacco Studied for HIV Vaccine
BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - A vaccine against the HIV virus may lie in a plant blamed for millions of deaths each year: tobacco.
Researchers at CropTech Corporation, a biotechnology firm, are working to genetically alter the leaf to clone a protein found in two strains of HIV.
When the protein, gp120, is given in a vaccine, researchers say, it could prompt the body to develop a resistance to the disease.
Scientists around the country are experimenting with using plants to fight HIV and other illnesses. The University of Maryland, for example, is researching ways to use potatoes in an HIV vaccine.
``But I don't know of anyone else using tobacco in this way,'' said Carol Tackett, a professor of medicine at Maryland.
The American Cancer Society welcomes new tobacco research.
``If tobacco can be used to cure or prevent diseases instead of cause them, that would be fantastic,'' said Dr. Michael Thun, head of Epidemologic Research for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta.
Carole Cramer, a plant physiologist at Virginia Tech and co-founder of Blacksburg-based CropTech, said tobacco is an ideal plant for this type of research because it yields a million seeds per plant, grows quickly and is easy to harvest.
The CropTech research is a form of transgenic science, which involves putting a gene from one species inside the cells of another.
Researchers at CropTech began transferring human genes to tobacco genes in 1993. They've also used tobacco plants to test proteins used to battle cancer, prevent blood clotting and treat genetic disorders.
Proteins have to be made in living systems, and tobacco has proven to be safer than animals, which can harbor viruses that can infect humans.
By inserting a human gene into individual tobacco cells, whole tobacco plants can be generated where every cell is capable of producing protein coded for the gene.
``It's a way of using tobacco as a factory,'' Cramer said. ``It's a perfect way to cure human illnesses.''
Cramer and CropTech see transgenic science as a way to revive a flagging tobacco industry. Commercialization of transgenic tobacco could require thousands of acres of tobacco each year. That would be good news for growers hit hard by the backlash from lawsuits against the tobacco industry and by quota cuts - the amount of tobacco the government allows them to produce.
``Pharmaceutical companies' demand for tobacco could outweigh that of tobacco companies,'' said Brandon Price, CropTech's chief executive officer.
To gear up for that possibility, CropTech has entered into a partnership with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation through its newly created, farmer-owned tobacco production business called ToBio LLC.
Some farmers in Virginia are participating in field tests of transgenic tobacco plants.
Thun said it would be a good thing for tobacco growers to cultivate and sell their crop for pharmaceutical uses.
``But I don't know that it would necessarily end the financial incentives for producing cigarettes from tobacco because that is such a lucrative business,'' he said.
CropTech receives funding from the National Institutes of Health and also hopes to receive some funds from the $4 billion Virginia expects to receive over the next 25 years as its share of the national tobacco settlement.
While the initial research looks promising, clinical testing of the HIV vaccine is years away, said David Radin, Crop Tech's president. And any vaccine would not help those already stricken with the disease.
Donald Wright, a tobacco grower in Glade Spring and vice-president of ToBio, said pharmaceutical uses of tobacco will improve its reputation.
``This type of research is indicative of the fact that tobacco isn't all that bad,'' Wright said. ``Isn't it ironic that we could take something we've been accusing of hurting the health of Americans and get something good out of it?''