Tobacco Plants Could Become Antimalarial Drug Factories

June 16, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Tobacco field
Photo credit: Kevinbercaw/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

New plant engineering method could help meet global demand for crucial antimalarial drug.

The most effective therapies against malaria include the drug artemisinin, which is naturally produced in small amounts by a herb called Artemisia annua. Unfortunately, demand for this drug far surpasses the supply of the plant.

"Malaria is a devastating tropical disease that kills almost half a million people every year," said Ralph Bock, a researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, in a press release.

"For the foreseeable future, artemisinin will be the most powerful weapon in the battle against malaria but, due to its extraction from low-yielding plants, it is currently too expensive to be widely accessible to patients in poorer countries.”

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Reporting in the journal eLife, Bock and his colleagues developed a new approach to genetically modify tobacco plants to manufacture the drug. “Producing artemisinic acid in a crop such as tobacco, which yields large amounts of leafy biomass, could provide a sustainable and inexpensive source of the drug, making it more readily available for those who need it most," said Bock.

The new method involves inserting new genes into both the nucleus and the chloroplast of the tobacco plants. This enabled the tobacco plants to produce a molecule called artemisinic acid, which the researchers can extract and convert into artemisinin by chemical reactions.

"We generated over 600 engineered tobacco plant lines that harbour different combinations of these additional genes, and analysed them in terms of the amounts of artemisinic compounds they acquired,” explained study lead author Paulina Fuentes.

“We could then identify those that generated unprecedented levels of 120 milligrams per kilogram of artemisinic acid in their leaves, which can be readily converted into artemisinin through simple chemical reactions."

Although further increases in output are needed to meet the global demand for artemisinin, the study lays the foundation for much cheaper production of this life-saving drug. The authors suggest that tobacco plants may serve as factories for producing other complex drugs in the future.

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