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
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
Medicago has a new production facility in
Scientists favor tobacco plants because they grow quickly and their biology is well understood, said
There are a number of Ebola treatments and vaccine in development, and one comes from tobacco plants grown in specialized greenhouses at another operation,
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
The last few doses available are in
In general, the idea behind pharming is to slip the genetic blueprints for a particular protein into a plant and let the plant's protein-making machinery go to work. Then the protein can be extracted from plant tissues. While tobacco plants are a mainstay of such work, proteins also have been produced in other plants, such as safflower and potato.
In fact, the only medicine made this way that the federal government has approved for general use in people is made in a laboratory from cells of carrot plants. It treats a genetic illness called Gaucher's disease. The drug was approved in 2012 by the
A plant-made vaccine for a chicken disease gained approval from the
The lack of any stronger track record for approved drugs in
Some companies use cells from bacteria instead, but they can't always produce the complicated proteins that drug companies need, he said. The plant-based approach "has a tremendous amount of promise, but it doesn't yet have the
And it would cost companies money to change over to the new technology, he said.
Plant-based drugs have attracted the attention and funding of the federal government, however, as a fast and cheap approach to make a lot of vaccine material in case of terrorist attacks, said
If a new germ appears, genetic material from it can be quickly inserted into plants, and large numbers of the plants can churn out supplies of material for vaccines or treatments, he said.
The plant-based experimental Ebola treatment was developed with government support.
AP National Writer
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