We are familiar with the tobacco plant being harvested to create products that damage our health, but a new study from the Hotung Molecular Immunology Unit at St George’s University in London has shown that tobacco plants can be genetically modified to produce rabies antibodies. It's hoped that the research will deliver a safe, inexpensive way of treating rabies in developing countries.

If untreated, rabies can infect the central nervous system and lead to death. According to the World Health Organization, rabies occurs in more than 150 countries and territories around the world, killing 55,000 people every year, mostly in Asia and Africa. Treating it with human rabies immunoglobulin (HRIG) is expensive, a factor which the St George’s researchers believe can be addressed using this new approach.

The new study involved “humanizing” the genetic sequences for the murine monoclonal antibody – an antibody found in rodents that has been found to immunize against rabies – so that it could be tolerated by people. The tobacco plant was then turned into a “production platform” to carry the antibody.

The antibody produced from the genetically altered (or transgenic) plants was then investigated for its impact on rabies. It was found to be effective in treating a broad range of rabies viruses by preventing the virus from attaching itself to nerve endings around the bite, which stops it from traveling to the brain through the nerves.

"An untreated rabies infection is nearly 100 per cent fatal and is usually seen as a death sentence," says St George's PhD researcher Leonard Both. "Producing an inexpensive antibody in transgenic plants opens the prospect of adequate rabies prevention for low-income families in developing countries."

The findings could lead to further research involving other plants, although tobacco remains an attractive proposition as it is not a food crop.

The study was recently published in The FASEB Journal.