The tobacco plant is being used by some drug companies as a key ingredient in the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
In recent years, the plant has been given a bad name due to the use of one tobacco strain called Nicotiana tabacum for producing cigarettes. Indigenous people of North America and Alaska have admired the tobacco plant for its use in medicinal practices in addition to using it in spiritual ceremonies.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one of at least seventy known tobacco strains is responsible for over 480,000 deaths a year.
Meanwhile, two North American biotech companies have been working on developing a coronavirus vaccine that might bring the plant into the positive limelight. According to an NPR report, they use a strain called Nicotiana benthamiana as bio-factories to produce a key protein from the coronavirus that can be used in a vaccine.
The two companies are Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) and Medicago, which is based out of Canada.
James Figlar, executive vice president for research and development for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which owns KBP said, “There’s obvious irony there.”
“If you wanted to be cynical about it, you could,” Figlar said. “But we tend to think of it as like at the end of the day, the tobacco plant in and of itself is still just a plant.”
According to the CDC, the vaccine work imitates an infection, convincing the immune system that it has been exposed to a pathogen, which in turn causes the immune system to produce T-lymphoctes and antibodies.
It can be done in multiple ways, one of which is used by Kentucky Bioprocessing which is to introduce something to the immune system that looks like a virus but isn’t infectious.
Harvesting 25-day-old plants grown in a greenhouse is the first step. Then the workers infect the plant by dipping it in a solution that contains microorganisms called agrobacteria. These bacteria have been modified to contain instructions for making a protein from the coronavirus which the tobacco plants will take up, according to NPR.
After seven days when the plant is infected in the dipping process, it goes through an extraction and purification process.
“At the end of the cycle, we have 99.9% pure protein,” KBP president Hugh Haydon told NPR.
A separate set of plants produces a tiny particle for packaging the viral protein. Both the components are then chemically attached which are manufactured and packaged separately. And the finished product can now be injected into humans as a vaccine and is what is expected to prompt an immune response so that it protects someone from dying from the coronavirus.
“It looks like a virus,” says Bruce Clark, CEO of Medicago.
“When it presents to the body, it looks and generates response like a virus, but it has no genetic material inside,” so it can’t infect someone, said Clark.
Vaccinating candidates in humans has already begun in Medicago. According to the company’s executive, phase 1 study results for its potential vaccine are expected by the middle of the month.
KBP said it can be stored at room temperature that is one of the benefits of the vaccine, unlike conventional vaccines which often require refrigeration, giving it a significant advantage over other vaccines.
It is developing the vaccine for British American Tobacco BATS.L, the maker of Dunhill and Lucky Strike cigarettes. In April the company announced its attempt at making a vaccine in and stated that it is working with the US Food and Drug Administration on the next steps and was also engaged with UK health authorities to bring its vaccine to clinical studies as soon as possible.
David O’Reilly, director of Scientific Research at BAT, said in a statement “We believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform and stand ready to work with governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against COVID-19.”
KBP made headlines a few years ago when it said it had created an effective treatment against Ebola called ZMapp, in conjunction with California-based Mapp Biopharmaceuticals.