Health & Wellbeing

Therapeutic human protein grown in tobacco plants

Tony Jevnikar (left) and Shengwu Ma are affiliated with both Western University and the Lawson Health Research Institute 
Tony Jevnikar (left) and Shengwu Ma are affiliated with both Western University and the Lawson Health Research Institute 
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Tony Jevnikar (left) and Shengwu Ma are affiliated with both Western University and the Lawson Health Research Institute 
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Tony Jevnikar (left) and Shengwu Ma are affiliated with both Western University and the Lawson Health Research Institute 

Made by our kidneys, interleukin 37 (IL-37) is a protein that has powerful anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing properties. It's only produced in small quantities within the body, but if synthesized externally in larger amounts, it could be used to treat a variety of conditions. To that end, scientists have now developed a method of producing it in tobacco plants.

Although IL-37 can already be lab-produced by E. coli bacteria, the process is expensive, and yields relatively little of the protein. As a more economic and higher-yielding alternative, researchers from Canada's Western University developed some rather special tobacco plants – they were genetically altered in order to produce IL-37 within their cells.

In lab analyses, it was found that fully-functional interleukin 37 could be extracted from those cells, and in substantial quantities. The scientists now believe that they could create other types of transgenic plants – such as potatoes – that would also be capable of producing the protein.

"The plants offer the potential to produce pharmaceuticals in a way that is much more affordable than current methods," says Prof. Shengwu Ma. "Tobacco is high-yield, and we can temporarily transform the plant so that we can begin making the protein of interest within two weeks."

It is hoped that the IL-37 could ultimately be used to treat inflammatory and autoimmune disorders such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia and arthritis. Additionally, Prof. Tony Jevnikar is now looking into using the protein for reducing the potentially-harmful inflammation that occurs when blood flow is restored to a transplanted organ.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Plant Cell Reports.

And as a side note, scientists at Italy's University of Verona have previously developed tobacco plants of their own, that produce the anti-inflammatory protein interleukin 10.

Source: Western University

3 comments
dsiewert
I'm curious if anyone knows why tobacco was used for this effort. It's a bit of a high-maintenance crop. Could the same thing be done with another plant, such as alfalfa which would consume much less in resources to grow?
BrianK56
Excellent idea to use plants but to ensure that the potatoes for example don't get mixed in for human consumption.
MichaelShortland
dsiewert, they probably chose the tobacco plant because it has already had its DNA mapped and is a very well known plant.
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