Scientists have created genetically modified tobacco plants which produce biological chemicals in their leaves that could one day be used to treat autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
Reuters reports that Italian researchers grew tobacco plants containing genes for interleukin-10, a "cytokine" immune system signalling molecule. Ultimately they hope to use the plants in combination with other biologically active chemicals to combat insulin-dependent, or Type 1, diabetes.
A number of agrochemical companies, including Bayer and Syngenta, have been looking at ways to make complex protein drugs in plants, although progress has been slow. Currently, antibody medicines and vaccines are produced in cell cultures inside stainless steel fermenters. However, the University of Verona's Mario Pezzotti, who led the tobacco study published in the journal, BMC Biotechnology, believes they could be grown more efficiently in fields since plants are the world's most cost-effective protein producers. Several different plants have been studied by research groups around the world, but tobacco is a firm favourite.
The move marks the latest advance in the emerging field of molecular farming, which may offer a cheaper way of making biotech drugs and vaccines than traditional factory systems. (ci)