Can tobacco be good for your health?

Professor George Lomonossoff, with the Nicotiana benthamiana plants (related to the tobacco plant),

Professor George Lomonossoff, with the Nicotiana benthamiana plants (related to the tobacco plant), that he is working on at the John Innes Centre, to develop vaccines. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Although it is now widely agreed that tobacco has harmful effects, Norwich researchers are leading a project to show the plant can have health benefits – by turning it into mini-drug factories.

A team at the John Innes Centre in Norwich is helping a European Union-funded project to develop new drugs, vaccines and cosmetic products from Nicotiana tabacum – the crop used to make cigarettes – and a related variety.

While there is overwhelming scientific evidence that smoking is bad for you, the Norwich Research Park institute is working hard to put the plant to good use.

Prof George Lomonossoff's laboratory will deliver the Newcotiana project which combines new plant breeding techniques to produce different antibodies and compounds in a sustainable manner which can then be used for drugs and other pharmaceutical products.

The scheme is part of the 7.2m euro Horizon 2020 project.

Prof Lomonossoff's team will be working with wild Australian variety Nicotiana benthamiana – a dwarf relative which is suited to indoor production for bio-pharmaceuticals.

He said: 'We will breed new varieties of tobacco and Nicotiana benthamiana that will work safely and efficiently as biofactories.

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'Plants will be used as production platforms for molecular farming to harvest high value medical substance.'

Rather than drying out the crop for smoking, the plants will be bred to grow health-promoting substances which can then be extracted and put to a variety of uses, including anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory products.

As well as producing new medicines it is hoped the project can revive tobacco cultivation and revitalize rural areas in decline.

Last year Prof Lomonossoff's team played its part in helping to develop a vaccine for poliovirus by making plants grow a non-pathogenic virus-like particle which can be used to mimic the disease to help the body ward off infection.

The Newcotiana project will involve 19 industrial and academic partners from eight European countries and Australia.

The John Innes Centre is one of the six institutions which make up Norwich Research Park alongside the Earlham Institute, The Sainsbury Laboratory, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, Quadram Institute and University of East Anglia.