Can a tobacco plant help fight cancer? Writing this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers report that they've been able to use tobacco plants as biological factories to manufacture specialized proteins needed for an experimental individualized cancer therapy. The researchers are studying one type of cancer, a potentially fatal form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. They took cells from the tumors of 16 different individuals, and then spliced genes that code for the surface proteins on those tumor cells into the tobacco mosiac virus, or TMV. Once tobacco plants were infected with the modified virus, the virus spreads throughout the plant, producing quantities of the needed protein within the plant's leaves. The proteins were then extracted from the plants and purified, producing several milligrams of protein specifically tailored to a patient's own tumors.
The technique is still in its early days. While the researchers showed in this 'Phase I' trial that the approach could produce the needed protein, and that the protein could be safely injected into cancer patients and produce an immune response, there is still no data on whether the approach will actually be useful in cancer therapy. We'll talk with one of the researchers on the project about the work, and its prospects for the future.
Produced by Charles Bergquist, Director and Contributing Producer