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Tobacco Plants Found Capable of Producing Malaria Drug

  • Jessica Berman

FILE - A farm worker harvests tobacco leaves at a farm in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 3, 2015. Scientists have found that malaria-fighting compound artemisinin can be grown in tobacco plants.

FILE - A farm worker harvests tobacco leaves at a farm in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 3, 2015. Scientists have found that malaria-fighting compound artemisinin can be grown in tobacco plants.

Scientists say they have figured out a way to use tobacco plants to produce artemisinin, a highly effective anti-malaria drug.

Malaria infects an estimated 200 million people each year, resulting in 400,000 deaths. The drug artemisinin is sometimes used to treat the mosquito-borne illness, clearing the parasite from the bloodstream within 48 hours, according to experts. However, it is very expensive.

Artemisinin comes from an herbal plant grown in China called sweet wormwood. It takes 18 months to grow, extract and produce only a small amount of the effective compound, according to bioengineer Shashi Kumar at the U.N. International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi.

“That increases the cost of this drug, and the people who are suffering most and poor are not able to afford this costly drug," Kumar said. "That is why we are looking at some source which can be grown everywhere, like the African continent or the Indian continent, easily. Tobacco is that crop.”

Kumar and colleagues have figured out a way to insert wormwood genes into tobacco plants.

FILE - А malaria worker is seen carrying a traditional medicine kit in a village near Pailin, Cambodia, Aug. 29, 2009. Scientists have found that conventional kits could be replaced with artemisinin, a cheap but highly effective anti-malaria drug.

FILE - А malaria worker is seen carrying a traditional medicine kit in a village near Pailin, Cambodia, Aug. 29, 2009. Scientists have found that conventional kits could be replaced with artemisinin, a cheap but highly effective anti-malaria drug.

Tobacco is a hardy plant and when the gene is inserted, a precursor compound of artemisinin shows up in its broad sturdy leaves.

Scientists at the U.N. Center tested the effectiveness of tobacco-produced artemisinin on rodents infected with Plasmodium berghei, a parasite that causes malaria in rats and is often used as an experimental model for genetic engineered treatments. Kumar said the artemisinin from tobacco leaves was more effective than the currently available drug.

But more tests are needed to see whether the tobacco-derived artemisinin drug is equally effective against P. falciparum, the parasite that causes the most dangerous form of the disease in humans.

Kumar and colleagues are now looking at ways to grow the anti-malaria drug in other, more edible plants.

“What we can do [is] we put this drug into edible plants like lettuce or spinach, where you can just make a powder, put that powder in a capsule and the capsule can be stored like in medical stores or anywhere from where the people can easily buy at a very cheap or very affordable price.”

News about tobacco-grown artemisinin was published in the Cell press journal Molecular Plant.

Kumar says no big tobacco companies have come forward volunteering to produce artemisinin. However, he is hopeful, given that the technology will be made freely available, that there will be some takers.

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