• 05.06.14

Finally, A Use For Tobacco That Doesn’t Kill You: Making Drugs

From producing flu vaccines to a potential cancer drug, scientists are discovering that tobacco plants are useful for things other than getting us addicted.

Finally, A Use For Tobacco That Doesn’t Kill You: Making Drugs
[Image: Cigs via Shutterstock]

Tobacco is normally bad for our health. Now that could change, as one biotech company starts using it to make vaccines that save lives.


Medicago, a firm in North Carolina, is taking Nicotiana benthamiana, a plant closely related to the variety used for cigarettes, and impregnating them with genetic material from a flu virus. The plants then generate “virus-like particles,” or VLPs, on their leaves, which Medicago harvests for making vaccines.

The process is described by Jesse Hirsch in Modern Farmer:

Once the solution is inside the plant, the VLPs spend a week growing. After a few days they become mottled and discolored. According to [Dave] Henry, [Medicago’s manufacturing director], it’s as if they’ve caught the flu. At the end of a week, the leaves are picked off each plant by hand for processing into a bulk vaccine.

Medicago is owned by Philip Morris and Mitsubishi and received a $21 million grant from DARPA to develop the technique. The Department of Defense wants to find alternatives to today’s vaccine-making methods, which are cumbersome and expensive.

The company has shown that it’s possible to produce 10 million flu vaccine doses in 30 days. But it’s yet to win approval from the FDA to start selling its products. Hirsch reports that it’s unlikely to happen before 2018 at the earliest.

Vaccines aren’t the only health product being developed lately from Nicotiana benthamiana. Researchers in Austria are using it to make pharmaceuticals, including a potential cancer drug. At the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, they’ve created plants that produce immunoglobulin M (IgM), a powerful antibody that can fight early infections.

According to Txchnologist, the technique involves adding human genes to plants to change the way they make proteins. In effect, the tobacco plants become proxies for processes that would normally occur inside human bodies.

“This opens a new door in generating a very efficient, new class of drugs that hasn’t been available before,” one of the scientists said. “With this method, we can systematically and specifically engineer the antibody to target any number of foreign bodies in a human–drug-resistant bacteria, cancer, and others.”


One day, medical marijuana may not be the only drug we’re growing.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.