Tobacco Asia

Volume 18, Number 4

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66 tobaccoasia By Chris Bickers The American tobacco industry enjoyed a rare moment of public approbation when an experi- mental Ebola treatment called ZMapp was used to treat two American aid workers who had returned from Africa infected with AIDS. The workers' health improved and as of Au- gust 20, their outlook is said to be good. Later, three doctors in Liberia with Ebola who started taking an experimental drug on August 14 were showing remarkable signs of improvement, a gov- ernment minister reported. Tobacco enters this conversation because the effect of ZMapp is based on the use of antibodies that have been "infiltrated" into tobacco plants. The strain of tobacco used, Nicotiana benthamiana, indigenous to Australia, is a relative of Nicotiana tabacum, the basis of the modern tobacco industry, but is not smokable itself. To produce therapeutic proteins inside a to- bacco plant, genes for the desired antibodies are fused to genes for a natural tobacco virus, said Bloomberg News. The tobacco plants are then in- fected with this new artificial virus. The infection results in the production of antibodies inside the plant. The plant is eventually ground up and the antibodies are extracted, he said. The whole pro- cess takes a matter of weeks. Ebola: Tobacco to the Rescue? Tobacco plants shown growing in a controlled environment at the Kentucky BioProcessing facility in Owensboro, Ky. The company uses tobacco plants grown at this facility to help manufacture an experimental treatment for Ebola disease. The genes for each of the antibodies were found by Mapp biopharmaceuticals and the Uni- versity of Manitoba, according to one report. They gave these genes to LeafBio, which put these genes into tobacco plants, and then gave them to Ken- tucky BioProcessing for larger scale manufacture. It is not a vaccine but is designed to inactivate the Ebola virus and help the body kill infected cells. It has been said that the treatment "recruits" the patient's immune system to help do the job. Forbes Magazine contributor David Kroll ex- plains this approach as "passive immunity." "By injecting the patient with ready-made antibodies raised in the laboratory to latch onto specific parts of an infectious agent, their body can mount an immediate immune response," said Kroll. "Passive immunity is therefore different from a vaccine that might require weeks for the person to make their own antibodies against the virus." The Ebola treatment hasn't been tested in hu- mans but has shown promise in animal tests. Kentucky BioProcessing, by the way, was re- cently acquired by R.J. Reynolds. This research effort descends in part from work done by Pinker- ton Tobacco in Owensboro and by Swedish Match after it acquired Pinkerton. A congressman from Kentucky reflected the delight that many in the southern tobacco busi- ness felt that a northern Kentucky entity had used tobacco to treat a dreaded disease. "What makes this treatment unique is that it was produced using a plant Kentucky knows well: tobacco," said Congressman Mike Denham of Maysville, KY. "Because tobacco is relatively easy to manipulate genetically, it has proven to be an ideal incubator when it comes to producing large quantities of medicine. The Ebola treatment is just one of potentially many." Kentucky is the home of another experimental treatment that could potentially have much more impact―because the disease it treats is much more common. Researchers from the University of Louisville are beginning an international effort to utilize to- bacco plants in HIV prevention, the university has announced. The researchers will develop a gel containing a specific protein that will prevent the transmission of HIV. "Our researchers are looking to solve prob- lems that affect the world," said James R. Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville. "Glob- ally, more than 34 million people are HIV positive. The development of a low-cost method to prevent transmission of HIV certainly is something that is desperately needed and the use of tobacco plants as a method of carrying the vaccine appears to be key in the process." It won't increase tobacco demand, but Ebola treatment gives tobacco a public relations boost.

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