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Genetically-engineered tobacco plants aid in new Ebola drug

While research is inconclusive on the effectiveness of the experimental drug ZMapp, which was developed to fight the deadly Ebola virus, it does demonstrate that genetic engineering is emerging as a much more far-reaching technology than we could have imagined.

The drug, derived from genetically-engineered tobacco plants, was given recently to two American aid workers who contracted Ebola while working in Liberia. The workers survived and are back in America receiving additional treatment. It’s too early to conclude that the drug saved them – another worker who was given the drug subsequently died – but the drug offers a ray of hope for what has become the largest Ebola outbreak in history.

According to an article in the Kentucky Herald-Leader (, the protein used in the Ebola drug was created by Mapp Biopharmaceutical. Kentucky BioProcessing, which was recently purchased by Reynolds American, is building the protein.

According to the article, tobacco plants are “infected” with the protein, which then reproduce it. The proteins are extracted from the plants and purified into a serum. KBP’s Owensboro, Ky., facility can produce large volumes of a compound within weeks. Tobacco was chosen as the host because it readily picks up genes inserted into it.

The article said in a study published last year, “scientists at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases reported that 43 percent of infected nonhuman primates recovered after receiving the treatment intravenously 104 hours to 120 hours after infection – after symptoms developed.” According to Reuters, the average human death rate over the last 14 Ebola outbreaks is 78.5 percent.

The article said KBP also has been selected for work on other health threats, including H1N1 vaccine production, an anti-rabies antibody, norovirus or the “cruise ship virus,” HIV prevention, parvovirus, and HPV vaccine.

Not surprisingly, a few anti-GMO websites (, were distraught to see the words “genetically-engineered” and “tobacco plants” in the national news as part of a possible cure. I can understand their frustration. It’s hard to argue with genetic engineering as a science of hope, rather than one of profit alone.

No one can say at this time if ZMapp will be a viable solution for the deadly infection. And even if it was, ramping up ample production of the drug will still take weeks, if not months. The drug is not approved for use and additional studies are needed to determine its safety and effectiveness on humans. But it certainly goes to show that genetically-engineered solutions to human health and nutrition are not only possible, but necessary to stay ahead of shape-shifting viruses like Ebola that can take out large segments of humanity with little warning.


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