Companies use tobacco to fight Ebola

by Jordan Nash

With the race to create effective vaccines to combat the Ebola epidemic, a few companies are trying a not-so-conventional approach. Jordan Nash reports.

Medical corporations in the Research Triangle are using the tobacco plant to create vaccines and antibodies. Photo courtesy of Kevin Bercaw)
Medical corporations in the Research Triangle are using the tobacco plant to create vaccines and antibodies. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Bercaw)

Tobacco. People light it up and chew it.

But now, a few medical factories are using tobacco for a healthy cause:vaccines and antibody treatment.

In order to make vaccines and treatments work, scientists grow proteins. UNC graduate Daniel Adams is a lab analyst in Durham and explains how proteins are  normally grown.

“So when flu season rolls around, they pick the strain they think is going to be the most popular and they put it in a chicken egg and use natural physiological processes to replicate it,” said Adams.

The problem? This method takes about five to six months to grow the proteins enough to make the medicine.

The tobacco process of growing proteins works in a similar fashion but takes a much shorter time.

Medicago, a Canadian-owned medical company that produces vaccines by using plant processes, has an American branch located in Research Triangle Park. The Durham facility is equipped to make more than 10 million doses of pandemic flu vaccines each month.

So how does the tobacco process work?

“The tobacco strain, they are putting protein in tobacco, its going to replicate it and act like a factory for it and after a few weeks or days, however long it takes, they have enough to distill down to their drug product,” said Adams.

And a new use for the cheaper and quicker tobacco process? To make treatments to combat Ebola.

Kentucky BioProcessing is using this method to make a treatment, called Z-Mapp, for the virus.  The company, which is owned by tobacco giant Reynolds American Incorporated, made the medicine that was given to the two Americans who were infected in Liberia who lived and to the Spanish priest who died this summer.

These treatments were not approved by the FDA but were given because of the dire circumstances.

While those doses were the only ones Kentucky BioProcessing had, officials in the company say they are working diligently to make more treatment doses as quickly as possible.

They say once another treatment is made and approved in the US, they can crank out thousands or millions of doses in a short period of time.

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