Ebola puts focus on drugs made in tobacco plants

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 15, 2014 at 9:24 am •  Published: August 15, 2014
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NEW YORK (AP) — It's an eye-catching angle in the story of an experimental treatment for Ebola: The drug comes from tobacco plants that were turned into living pharmaceutical factories.

Using plants this way — sometimes called "pharming" — can produce complex and valuable proteins for medicines. That approach, studied for about 20 years, hasn't caught on widely in the pharmaceutical industry.

But some companies and academic labs are pursuing it to create medicines and vaccines against such targets as HIV, cancer, the deadly Marburg virus and norovirus, known for causing outbreaks of stomach bug on cruise ships, as well as Ebola.

While most of the work in this area uses a tobacco plant, it's just a relative of the plant used to make cigarettes.

"It's definitely not something you smoke," said Jean-Luc Martre, a spokesman for Medicago, a Canadian company that's testing flu vaccines made with tobacco plants.

Medicago has a new production facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Once approved by federal authorities, it's expected to be able to make 30 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine a year, or 120 million vaccine doses to fight a major outbreak of "pandemic" flu if the government requests it.

Scientists favor tobacco plants because they grow quickly and their biology is well understood, said Ben Locwin, a pharmaceutical biotech consultant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who is considered an expert on plant-produced medicines by the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists.

The North Carolina operation can handle as many as 90,000 plants. Under the whir of fans, rows of young seedlings grow for about a month, until they are about a foot tall. Then they are taken by robots to another section of the facility, turned upside down and dipped in a tank to be "infiltrated" with whatever proteins they wish to grow.

There are a number of Ebola treatments and vaccine in development, and one comes from tobacco plants grown in specialized greenhouses at another operation, Kentucky BioProcessing, in Owensboro, Kentucky.

That experimental treatment, called ZMapp, uses proteins called antibodies, and is designed to inactivate the Ebola virus and help the body kill infected cells. It hasn't been tested in people but had shown promise in animal tests, so it was tried in three people sickened by Ebola in West Africa — two U.S. aid workers and a Spanish missionary priest, who later died.

The last few doses available are in Liberia. Kentucky BioProcessing, which produces it for the San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical, said it would take several months to make more, but it is working to increase production.

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