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.