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Biotech Breakthroughs Could Lead to New Tobacco Industry

Listen NowOver the years, tobacco has been a major economic engine for Kentucky. But the number of tobacco farmers has plummeted since the federal government ended its 70 year old price support program in 2004. Those who still grow tobacco say the crop has an uncertain future as the nation’s smoking rate continues to decline. WFPL’s Stephanie Sanders reports on a project in western Kentucky that –if successful – could not only improve the industry’s future, it could also lead to major medical breakthroughs, and save lives.

Dr. Kenneth Palmer was born in Zimbabwe and educated in South Africa. He was struck by what he calls ‘diseases of poverty’ – especially those that are sexually transmitted, like HPV and HIV. And though there’s a vaccine now on the market for HPV, he’s working on another one – one that can reach those needy populations in Africa."The irony of the situation with the HPV vaccine is that the people who need the vaccine are not the people that can afford to pay $120 a dose for the vaccine," says Palmer.Spurred by his desire to bring affordable, much-needed medicines to the third-world, Palmer turned his virology research to plants. Specifically, plant-made pharmaceuticals – or PMPs.Producing medicine in plants that can be used for food – like corn – is too risky because the pharmaceuticals could make it into the food supply and people could accidentally ingest the genetically-enhanced plants. So researchers have turned to non-food bearing plants. And Palmer says tobacco was a natural fit – especially in Kentucky."A lot is known about the molecular biology and the physiology of the tobacco plant," says Palmer, "and so I think it’s logical that people have identified tobacco as a host for producing pharmaceuticals, because there’s a great deal of knowledge about it."Palmer works with a team at the Owensboro Cancer Research Program, in partnership with the James Graham Brown Cancer Center in Louisville. The team has identified a gene that, through a series of steps, can enable a tobacco plant to produce certain proteins.Researchers can then basically pummel the plant and extract the protein they need for the medicine. It’s all happening at the Kentucky Bioprocessingplant in Owensboro.

The plant contains greenhouses, seeding lines and industrial equipment needed to harvest the tobacco plants, and then extract the necessary proteins from them. For now, it makes sense to conduct the process this way – the researchers need only enough material to continue clinical studies of the drug. But if the studies are successful, and researchers can produce, for example, a one-time-use microbicide for the HIV virus, they would need much larger production of the tobacco plant – fields of it.There are a handful of farmers in western Kentucky who are already growing leaf for bioprocessing researchers – including Danny Ebelhar."We like raising this for the fact that there is less labor," says Ebelhar, "probably more management involved, but then at the end of the season, the money is about the same as far as net money you can make from this."Ebelhar has been growing tobacco for biomedical research – along with sixty acres of commercial tobacco – for 18 years. He says his family has long been worried about the potential demise of the crop, but hopes now to be in a good position for the new tobacco industry."They always say the pioneers never make it in what they’re doing and it’s usually the people that come along and pick up the pieces later," says Ebelhar, "but you know we still have a lot of hope that this technology is going to take off and not only benefit agriculture, which it will, but mankind in general."Ebelhar has farmed for decades with his two brothers Phil and Tony, and they’re hoping an 18-year-old gamble will one day pay off for their children and grandchildren, who someday hope to run the family farm. Additional links: