Medicinal Tobacco: Will A Pack A Day Keep Ebola Away?

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I don’t smoke, chew or sniff tobacco and never have. I have never seen the purpose of a weed that doesn’t actually do anything but make you edgy and irritable when you haven’t had any in a while. There’s enough stuff in my life that makes me unpleasant to be around (ask my wife and kids), I don’t need to make Philip Morris richer to be that way. Throw in lung cancer, emphysema and yellow fingers, and it’s pretty clear that tobacco has historically been a bad thing.

In fact, if the FDA were allowed to regulate tobacco the way it regulates other drugs, it would be on the same list as heroin, LSD and peyote — a Schedule I drug. FDA says, “Schedule I substances are those that have the following findings: A. The drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse. B. The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States. C. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.”

However, when new facts arise, the wise man changes his mind. Tobacco actually has a medical use now. It’s being used to develop antibodies to fight Ebola. But don’t light up in celebration just yet; a pack a day won’t keep Ebola away. It’s a little more complex than that.

Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. is a nine-person operation in San Diego. The company’s website says it “was founded in 2003 to develop novel pharmaceuticals for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, focusing on unmet needs in global health and biodefense.” It has a drug, which the media have dubbed the “secret Ebola serum,” called ZMapp that has only been tested in animals. At least, it had only been tested in animals until the two Americans Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol came down with Ebola while helping fight it in West Africa.

Bloomberg says, “Kentucky BioProcessing LLC, a subsidiary of tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc. (RAI), manufactures the treatment for Mapp from tobacco plants.”

The wire service interviewed Charles Arntzen, a plant biotechnology expert at Arizona State University who has worked with the researchers at Mapp. “The tobacco plant production system was developed because it was a method that could produce antibodies rapidly in the event of an emergency, he said. To produce therapeutic proteins inside a tobacco plant, genes for the desired antibodies are fused to genes for a natural tobacco virus, said Arntzen. The tobacco plants are then infected with this new artificial virus, he said. ‘The infection results in the production of antibodies inside the plant,’ Arntzen said. The plant is eventually ground up and the antibody is extracted, he said. The whole process takes a matter of weeks.'”

Jagran Josh, an Indian educational website, explains the process in detail: “The drug uses a new method of passive immunization to treat Ebola infection. First antibodies are extracted from infected patients and then induced into mice. The Ebola protein is then genetically altered and then inserted into tobacco leaves through a unique method developed by a German company, Icon Genetics. The antibodies are then inserted into tobacco leaves using this technology and grown in large numbers for extraction. Finally, the antibodies against the Ebola virus are then administered to patients to develop immunity to tackle the disease.”

You are likely to see a lot of ZMapp being produced in the next several months, and it is going to be used all over the place if it has the kind of effectiveness researchers expect — 80 percent survival isn’t bad when the disease has a mortality rate of 60-90 percent. And this is just the first generation of it. It will be improved.

The FDA has even a made bureaucratic allowances for “compassionate use” of untested, not-yet-approved drugs. Approval for use outside a clinical trial can be done in under a day. If there is no effective approved treatment, patients can be give experimental treatments. Since there is no treatment at all for Ebola, it’s an easy decision.

Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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