Cigarettes cause a nearly endless amount of health problems–heart disease, lung cancer, and asthma are just a few of the more common issues triggered by the tobacco-filled sticks. But while cigarettes may have overwhelmingly negative health effects, don’t write off tobacco entirely; the plant might just help protect people from HIV.
Pharma-Planta, a $17 million partnership between academics and industry in the EU, just got the go-ahead to begin human trials of a drug containing a monoclonal antibody that may prevent the spread of HIV–and it’s produced from genetically modified tobacco plants. If successful, the drug will stop HIV transmission between male and female partners when topically applied to the vaginal cavity.
Why tobacco plants? Currently, biopharmaceuticals are made using fermentation vats filled with bacteria or mammalian cells. It’s an incredibly expensive process that requires extensive processing and purification to ensure that the end product doesn’t contain disease-causing agents. Agricultural production, on the other hand, is cheap and easy to scale up. And unlike traditional biopharmaceuticals, plant-based versions could eventually be grown in developing countries on the cheap–major tobacco producers include countries like China and India.
This is still far from reality. Pharma-Planta’s pricey facility, which isolates the P2G12 antibody for the drug (the tobacco plants are grown in greenhouses), was the first to get a license for manufacturing recombinant pharmaceutical products from plants in the EU.
But eventually, plant-grown medical products may become common. “We now have a facility in Europe for producing modern medicines in
transgenic plants that is unique in the world, although this has taken
many years and much investment to establish,” said Professor Rainer Fischer, Pharma-Planta coordinator, in a statement. “This approval is a
springboard for European plant biotechnology and will enable many
important medical products to be realised.”
[Images: Homepage, Pharma-Planta, Top image, Flickr user Jzawdubya]