March 25, 2009 Smokers don’t get excited - science hasn’t found a way to genetically engineer tobacco for smoking to be good for you. What science has done however is to genetically engineer tobacco plants to produce medicines that could assist in the treatment of several autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, including diabetes.

A team of scientists led by Professor Mario Pezzotti at the University of Verona set out to create transgenic tobacco plants that would produce biologically-active interleukin-10 (IL-10), a potent anti-inflammatory cytokine (a category of signaling molecules that, like hormones and neurotransmitters, are used extensively in cellular communication.) They tried two different versions of IL-10 (one from a virus, one from the mouse) and generated plants in which this protein was targeted to three different compartments within the cell, to see which would work most effectively.

The researchers found that tobacco plants were able to process both forms of IL-10 correctly, producing the active cytokine at high enough levels that it might be possible to use tobacco leaves to produce medicines without lengthy extraction and purification processes. The next step will be to feed the plants to mice with autoimmune diseases to find out how effective they are. The team is also keen to use the plants to see whether repeated small doses could help prevent type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM), in combination with other auto-antigens associated with the disease.

According to Pezzotti, "Transgenic plants are attractive systems for the production of therapeutic proteins because they offer the possibility of large scale production at low cost, and they have low maintenance requirements. The fact that they can be eaten, which delivers the drug where it is needed, thus avoiding lengthy purification procedures, is another plus compared with traditional drug synthesis." Not only could such research provide tobacco farmers with a financially viable way to grow crops that enhance people’s lives rather than shortening them, it could also provide much cheaper and efficient ways to produce medicine.

The study was part of the Pharma-Planta project and the team’s findings are published in the open access journal BMC Biotechnology.

Darren Quick