Ebola outbreak puts spotlight on tobacco-based drug production

Over the past decade, plant-made drugs have generated plenty of chatter but have had little effect on commercial manufacturing, with the 2012 FDA approval of Pfizer ($PFE) and Protalix Biotherapeutics ($PLX) an isolated success. The approach was again thrust into the headlines this week when a tobacco-produced drug was used to treat two people who had contracted Ebola.

Kentucky Bioprocessing, a unit of tobacco giant Reynolds American, produced the drug--which was developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical--on a contract basis. The production process is similar to the steps for other plant-made drugs, with researchers infecting tobacco plants with a virus that includes the genetic code for the desired antibodies. After the plants are infected by the virus they begin producing the antibodies, after which researchers extract the active ingredient.

While this approach and other methods of plant-based production are still primarily used in research settings, they have nonetheless attracted considerable interest from industry and government. Last year Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma paid $357 million to buy Medicago, a Canadian developer of plant-made vaccines. Medicago and Mapp have both benefited from government support, with the Department of Defense committing $21 million to the former's vaccine plant in North Carolina.

Mapp has also worked with an alphabet soup of U.S. agencies--including NIAID, DARPA, DTRA and USAMRIID--to develop its pipeline, Forbes reports. The turnaround times of plant-made drugs are one reason they have attracted the interest of biodefense groups. "Producing antibodies in plants is faster and less expensive than traditional manufacturing," Mary Kate Hart, an immunology researcher who worked on Ebola antibodies for the U.S. Army, told Bloomberg.

- read Forbes' feature
- and Bloomberg's article