We don’t understand how lengthy it is going to take to discover a vaccine for COVID-19, however we do know this: if and once we discover one, there might be unprecedented demand for the molecules that go into it.
A number of various kinds of vaccine are at the moment being researched. These embody people who use inactivated types of the virus itself and molecules that appear like the virus. The physique recognises these molecules when they’re injected and produces proteins known as antibodies that shield us from threats like viruses. It might even be doable to deal with COVID-19 sufferers with antibodies immediately.
All of those approaches would require us to mass-produce energetic molecules, and shortly. However how can we try this? The query predates our present pandemic.
Final 12 months, the seek for a solution took us to the tobacco fields of Spain and Italy as a result of, as unusual because it sounds, the tobacco plant would possibly present a novel option to meet this big demand.
Huge farmer meets huge pharma
Right this moment, the fundamental elements of vaccines are produced utilizing mammal, micro organism and yeast cell cultures in containers known as bioreactors. These fundamental elements are produced in managed environments to strict specs.
For various years, nevertheless, researchers have demonstrated that vegetation can act as bioreactors identical to cell cultures. Crops have been a wealthy supply of pharmacologically vital compounds all through historical past, but it surely has solely not too long ago change into doable – due to biotechnology – to change vegetation to develop vital compounds in a focused method. This is named “pharming”.
Not solely would possibly this be a less expensive option to produce in-demand molecules, however, probably, vastly extra scaleable.
If vegetation may be harnessed for this goal, it may result in new industries and options for pharmaceutical firms. Decrease and center revenue nations may significantly profit from this low-tech choice, as a result of cell tradition options require better upfront funding. To this finish, devoted pharming services have not too long ago opened in Brazil and South Africa.
Pharming for molecules will not be restricted to medical purposes, both. It’s additionally doable to develop dietary, beauty and industrial molecules in vegetation.
The lab mouse of the plant world
It might appear counter-intuitive that the reply to a world pandemic may very well be produced within the leaves of one of many world’s most threatening vegetation. However there are good the reason why the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and its relative N. benthamiana are widespread vegetation for pharming.
Each are simply modified and collectively they’ve change into generally known as the lab mice of the plant science world, partly on account of tobacco’s financial significance.
Tobacco has all of the properties we want when deciding on a pharming platform: it’s quick-growing, leafy and there are individuals conversant in rising it everywhere in the world. A number of laboratories have already seen success in utilizing it to develop antibodies for the therapy of HIV and the Ebola virus.
So it’s maybe no shock that British American Tobacco not too long ago introduced its ambition to provide between one to a few million doses of a possible coronavirus vaccine utilizing tobacco.
These efforts depend on contained, indoor manufacturing. However to provide at scale, we would wish to pharm outdoor. That’s why we visited Spain and Italy – two of Europe’s largest producers of tobacco – final 12 months, with a view to converse with farmers and their cooperatives to see if they’d be interested by changing into pharmers. The response, which might be printed in a forthcoming analysis paper, was largely constructive. Tobacco farmers noticed this as a possibility to extend revenue in a shrinking European market and de-stigmatise a crop they wish to continue to grow.
Don’t wager the pharm but
Pharming will not be with out its issues, a few of which transcend the technical.
It has been an extended highway for the reason that first plant was used a automobile for pharming, partially due to the necessity to reveal that plant-derived molecules are as protected and dependable as people who come from cell cultures, which we perceive much better and are already the popular platform for pharmaceutical firms.
However it is usually as a result of pharming requires genetic modification, a famously controversial difficulty with the general public. (Concern over genetic modification doesn’t seem to increase to cell tradition applied sciences, which additionally usually depend on modified microorganisms.)
European laws is a big barrier. This implies pharming is at the moment confined to closely managed areas equivalent to laboratories and has restricted certainly one of pharming’s best belongings: the truth that it may very well be achieved at giant scale in open fields.
The strict guidelines round pharmaceutical manufacturing additionally pose a giant problem for outside pharming, although no less than one US-based firm has demonstrated that it’s doable to provide therapeutic molecules within the area.
Combining biotechnology with a crop surrounded by appreciable controversy for comprehensible causes may show equally difficult, particularly if Huge Tobacco firms are concerned.
However the potential is there for us to provide vaccines and therapeutics safely and at scale, utilizing the tobacco plant for good as an alternative of harming individuals’s well being. And as COVID-19 sweeps the globe, there’s by no means been extra of a necessity to take action.