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. 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.