When I was younger and would get bitten by a wasp, bee or ant (or an ill-acting cousin for that matter), my granddaddy would say, “Spit some tobacco juice on it.” In a way, some smart folks have done the same, turning some special tobacco juice into a potentially lifesaving serum.
Dr. Kent Brantly, in an effort to save his life, recently received an experimental drug to fight the Ebola virus he likely contracted while working in Liberia. The drug was grown inside “infected” tobacco in Kentucky. Another American missionary with Ebola got the same treatment. According to CNN:
Brantly's and Nancy Writebol's conditions significantly improved after receiving the medication, sources say. On July 22, Brantly woke up feeling feverish. Fearing the worst, Brantly immediately isolated himself. Writebol's symptoms started three days later. A rapid field blood test confirmed the infection in both of them after they had become ill with fever, vomiting and diarrhea.
It's believed Brantly and Writebol, who worked with the aid organization Samaritan's Purse, contracted Ebola from another health care worker at their hospital in Liberia, although the official Centers for Disease Control and Prevention case investigation has yet to be released.
The treatment they received proved hopeful in monkeys but had never been tried on humans. The patients knew this.
The medicine they received is a compound called MB-003, or ZMapp, a serum not manufactured but grown in tobacco plants, in this case, grown in greenhouses in Owensboro, Ky., according to Kentucky.com.
Kentucky BioProcessing, acquired by Reynolds American in January, conducts contract research and development for San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical. In 2007, Mapp, working under contract for the U.S. Department of Defense and other federal agencies, engaged KBP to develop a process to manufacture a compound designed to be a post-exposure treatment for Ebola virus. Tobacco readily picks up genes inserted into it. The Owensboro facility uses that ability to quickly and inexpensively produce large volumes of a compound within weeks.
The Ebola-fighting protein is injected into the tobacco plants, which pumps out more ‘copies’ of the protein, which is then purified down to the serum used to fight Ebola.
The tobacco used to make the Ebola serum is a genetically modified crop, according to the reports, a technology far too often demonized. Farmers use GM tools to produce the yields needed to provide food for people to prosper, the most basic of needs. And now, if all goes well with this serum, such tools will help stop life-threatening diseases.
Score a big one for human ingenuity, helpful modifications and responsible science – and tobacco juice.