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Keeping Emphysema At Bay, With Help From Tobacco Plants

Using tobacco to fight emphysema is certainly unexpected, especially for the scientists who were working on a way to prevent pandemics when they stumbled on this much more marketable medical breakthrough.

Keeping Emphysema At Bay, With Help From Tobacco Plants
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It was a potentially world-changing idea: By quickly growing and extracting vaccines from tobacco plant leaves, the vaccine industry could be ready in case of a pandemic, and scrap the ugly practice of extracting vaccines from fluid in chicken eggs. But the UC Davis researchers behind the idea were part of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps, a bootcamp to turn scientists into savvy entrepreneurs. Like everyone else who was a part of the inaugural I-Corps this past quarter, the UC Davis team ditched their original idea for one that might actually succeed in the market. Instead of growing vaccines, the team now wants to use tobacco plants to grow a protein that can keep emphysema (ironically) at bay.

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When we first spoke to the UC Davis researchers after they were accepted to I-Corps, team member Lucas Arzola had this to say: “Our hypothesis is that we can be a producer of vaccines in a rapid fashion. It’s relevant to the H1N1 crisis or when you’re dealing with other large outbreaks where you need to produce millions of vaccines in a short amount of time. But we’re willing to challenge this hypothesis and look at other markets and other business models.”

Over the past few months, the UC Davis team ventured out of the lab and began doing real-world research, interviewing drug companies and anyone else who would talk to them about the idea. Despite the life-saving potential of speedily grown vaccines in the event of an epidemic, drug companies wanted nothing to do with the tobacco proposal. It would be a billion-dollar investment for a return only in the case of a massive H1N1 outbreak.

So the team pivoted and figured out a new plan. They would ditch the vaccine idea and instead grow the alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) protein in tobacco plants.

AAT protects the body’s tissue from the enzymes of inflammatory cells. When humans don’t have enough of it, elasticity of the lungs increases, triggering problems like emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cirrhosis. AAT-deficient patients need weekly infusions of the protein, which currently is collected from blood donors. This is extremely costly–the cost per AAT-deficient patient is $100,000 per year, for the rest of their life. While AAT deficiency is found in just 6,000 patients in the U.S., it is believed to be underdiagnosed. The real number of patients could be as high as 100,000. That means there may be a growing market for what the UC Davis team has to offer as diagnostics for the disease improve.

At last week’s I-Corp final presentation, the UC Davis team reported that they have successfully produced recombinant AAT in the lab–meaning they can take the AAT gene and mass-produce it with the tobacco platform. Next up: securing funding, licensing the technology from UC Davis, and finding a biotech company to partner with. Maybe after the U.S. is hit with a pandemic, the drug companies will come around and sign on to use the tobacco platform for vaccines, too.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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