Tobacco has long had a reputation for causing fatal lung disease, but now the plant may be used to save lives.
Israeli scientists, led by Hebrew University Professor, Alexander Vainstein, are using genetically modified tobacco to produce the anti-malaria drug artemisinin.
The drug is usually extracted from the wild sweet wormwood plant, which is expensive and inefficient to grow.
By using plant and yeast-derived genes, Vainstein’s team replicated the wormwood’s entire biochemical pathway to produce artemisinin in tobacco plants, at a fraction of the cost.
Professor Vainstein explains:
“Today the drug is produced from Artemisia Anua. It’s a plant that is not actually agriculturally suitable product. So we modified tobacco and we now have tobacco plants producing the same drug. And this is actually the first time, as far as we know that this final product was produced anywhere in any system.”
Since tobacco grows quickly, with large biological mass suitable for drug extraction, the researchers say industrial production of the GM crop should be possible.
Malaria expert, Professor Jacob Golenser, says the discovery will have other benefits:
“It’s an important step toward a better production of artemisinin which is a very important drug, being an introductory drug to some other derivatives that are nowadays used as a first-line drug against malaria and probably, in the future, also against some other diseases like cancer and some parasitic diseases.”
The university’s technology transfer company, Yissum Research Development, has patented the innovation. It’s seeking a partner to develop the drug, which will take up to three years.
There are signs that malarial parasites are developing resistance to artemisinin, so the drug would be used in combination with other medication.
Malaria is one of the world’s most lethal diseases. The World Health Organization says that in 2010, it killed more than 650,000 people. In Africa, it’s responsible for one in five childhood deaths.
The disease is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium and transmitted via mosquitoes. Symptoms include fever, vomiting and muscle pain. Left untreated, the disease leads to organ breakdown and death.
If genetically engineered tobacco can help reduce malaria fatalities, the plant may undergo an altogether unexpected image makeover.