Holy smokes! Tobacco can save lives!

17 June 2016
Posted by Lucka Bibic.

The team of scientists from Germany genetically modified tobacco plants to helpTobacco plants produce a drug which fights malaria. Until now, the researchers had to plant large amounts of a yellowish herb called Artemisia annua, also known as Sweet Annie to make the drug, but the yields were low and the production costly.

In Africa every 30 seconds a child dies from malaria. Battling against this merciless killer is challenging for various reasons, among them the difficulty of creating drugs to fight malaria.  As artemisinin based drugs are in short supply because of the high cost of obtaining the drug chemically, piecing together a cheaper way to make the artemisinic acid is first and foremost.

Now, the team of German researchers found a way to boost the production of an anti-malaria drug and designed a high-yield tobacco variety to replicate the biochemical system by which artemisinin is biosynthesized.

They used a genetic engineering method to transplant the genes, responsible to create artemisinic acid, in the tobacco plant. This kind of genetic transformation makes a tobacco the attractive system for the design of drugs because of the possibility of large scale production at low cost.

The team then used their best line for introduction of additional set of genes into its nucleus. These harbouring genes encode proteins that increase the synthesis of the artemisinic acid.

After generating more than 600 bioengineered tobacco plant lines with different combinations of these genes, the scientists then looked up which leaf produced the highest amount of artemisinic acid.

After a simple chemical conversion of the acid into its active antimalarial form, the drug can then do wonders among hundreds of millions sufferers for whom malaria represents a daily threat.

Industrial scale-up would be required to raise artemisinic acid production, but the novel approach can reduce the cost of artemisinin therapy significantly.

"The advantage of the plants is that they provide a cheaper production platform, they are renewable and easy scalable.  If you need more of the drug, you just put more plants in the field or if you need less, you just put fewer plants. So it's a very good alternative as plants just need water and sun for their growth," explains the lead author and postdoctoral researcher Dr Paulina Fuentes, who is investigating how to beat up malaria one plant at a time. 

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