Tobacco, an unlikely ingredient with a bad reputation, is changing the way pharmacists and health experts view their approach to fighting Ebola. Before the death of Ebola patient Thomas Duncan, scientists began looking for methods to cure this deadly disease and stop it from spreading any further.
But why tobacco?
Doctors are experimenting with a serum called Zmapp, the substance that cured Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol after becoming infected earlier this year while providing aid in Liberia. However, the process to engineer the antibodies provided from mice for ZMapp is too costly for continuous research. It takes about a month to provide a few doses of the serum.
“It would be great to have a vaccine but it takes time to develop these treatments and there are the technical hurdles like testing to go through. It’s just not that easy to make them,” said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, Dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
Tobacco plants prepare more antibodies for dozens of doses for a medicine in less time for a lower cost. The plants are also easier to manufacture in contained environments and can help speed up the process to create more ZMapp for infected patients.
Despite causing hundreds of thousands of cancer cases annually, the plant’s versatility allows for an increase in the amount of ZMapp. However, the high doses Ebola patients would require would require tobacco production to triple. This makes it harder to gain full support of a plant supplement.
According to Ben Locwin, an expert on plant-produced medicines, “The lack of any stronger track record for approved drugs in the United States is a key reason why the plant-based technology hasn’t been embraced more fully.”
No plans for the manufacturing of ZMapp are set in stone, but experts believe the country would benefit from the production both economically and socially. Money and time would be saved, and a new method of production would be introduced to the market.
Some companies are already using tobacco to test the reduction of cancer cells. PlantForm, a Canadian biopharmaceutical company, is testing with tobacco plants to produce a drug reducing the growth of breast cancer tumors. The University of Louisville has been using nicotiana benthamiana, a relative to tobacco, to develop vaccines for cervical cancer.
With Ebola spreading outside Africa, any method to speed up the production of ZMapp should be considered. The tobacco plant could be the saving grace of those on the brink of death.
“[Ebola] is not just a problem for Western Africa, it’s a serious global issue,” said Michael Goodin, specialists in plant viruses. “To contain these outbreaks as quickly as possible is of incredible importance; the whole world should be singularly focused on this issue.”