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Tobacco A Lifesaver?

Tobacco, the product that has received so much bad press and has been implicated in illness, disability and death, may yet turn out to be a lifesaver. John Howard reports.

Researchers in the US have discovered that by introducing a human gene into tobacco, the plant can be used as the growing agent for human proteins which can then be used to manufacture drugs that treat a variety of illnesses.

Currently, such proteins are extracted from human tissue in a painstaking and expensive process.

"Tobacco is a great host for growing protein," said Greg Hicks of the Farm Bureau Federation.

But why tobacco?

Because the same leaf which people smoke has an ability to heal itself. If an insect nibbles on a tobacco leaf in the field, the plant immediately starts throwing out cells to rebuild the damage.

That property means it is a great host for quickly growing protein and lots of it.

In the field, tobacco that has been altered genetically looks like any other tobacco. But unlike corn and soybeans that must have their seeds genetically altered, tobacco doesn't. That means less risk of environmental contamination.

Tobacco doesn't produce the proteins until it's in the processing plants. There are no risks because the tobacco isn't allowed to go to seed.

The new generation tobacco offers farmers big profits because the crop has to grow for only two months with an expected annual yield of three crops each year.

The crop is harvested in the green leaf stage when it is cut at about 500mm from the ground. The stalk is left to sprout another crop.

>From the field, stems and leaves will be taken into factories, washed and then shredded like coleslaw. Then, the genetically treated plants start giving forth their precious proteins.

The tobacco processing factories will produce the raw protein material for the drug companies which manufacture the end product. The drug companies will purify and refine the proteins but that will be less risky than working with human-produced proteins because tobacco isn't susceptible to human disease and viruses.

There are currently around 500 companies in the US with more than 800 biopharmaceutical products under development.

Hicks says the tobacco protein process is like putting in one aspirin and getting a whole bottle back.

Researchers at Virgina Tech started looking at tobacco's unique qualities about a decade ago. They now say tobacco protein can be used to produce perhaps a half-dozen expensive drugs.

Drugs which can cost a patient up to $75 thousand dollars a year to stay alive, may now cost just hundreds of dollars each year by using tobacco instead of human proteins.

The US market for protein-type products is worth US$15 billion and is expected to grow to US$50 billion within the next 15 years.


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