The Pentagon’s medical research arm credited the use of tobacco plants in 2012 for the quick development of 10 million doses of flu vaccine. “Plant-based solutions” could over time prove more effective than the typical process — growing a virus in eggs — said Alan Magill, program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency…
The Pentagon’s medical research arm credited the use of tobacco plants in 2012 for the quick development of 10 million doses of flu vaccine. “Plant-based solutions” could over time prove more effective than the typical process — growing a virus in eggs — said Alan Magill, program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the time, adding, “the research is very promising.”
But big hurdles remain. It would take thousands of doses to come up with an experimental treatment. Reynolds’ work is in the very early stages, meaning the outbreak could subside before a cure is close to perfected. And some vaccines may not be 100 percent effective against all the strains of a target disease, as was the case with Ebola. Such factors have kept most big drug companies away from the vaccine business: Moderna Therapeutics and Johnson & Johnson are the only companies who’ve publicly acknowledged working on a coronavirus vaccine, both with government support.
The science behind past tobacco industry efforts to branch into medicine haven’t always matched the hype. Though nicotine has been shown to improve memory in pre-dementia patients, one highly touted treatment failed in four clinical trials — and some efforts to expand research into other conditions haven’t borne fruit. Two non-plant-based Ebola vaccines were found to be more effective than the treatment Reynolds worked on, which has never been approved by the FDA.
The tobacco companies are still pushing forward. Besides Reynolds’ tiny Kentucky BioProcessing subsidiary, which is testing the coronavirus, Philip Morris has taken a 40 percent stake in Medicago, a firm using the similar tobacco-growing technology to try to develop a flu vaccine.
“People can be cynical. But the fact is that we might be able to help,” said Hugh Haydon, Kentucky BioProcessing’s chief executive officer.
The company has contacted the Trump administration’s health department about its coronavirus work and said it could provide a sample to the government by early March.
“You can go from the gene sequence to a greenhouse or a warehouse full of plant materials in a very short period of time,” said Kenneth Palmer, a microbiologist at University of Louisville whose focused on plant-based vaccines. Palmer receives no tobacco industry funding but said the university has paid Kentucky BioProcessing to produce plants for it in the past.
The pivot to drugmaking comes at a pivotal time for some tobacco giants. Teen tobacco use had steadily fallen for two decades before e-cigarettes swung the trend around in 2018, earning promises of a federal crackdown on the sector the companies have increasingly leaned on while traditional smoking has continued to decline. Congress in December also raised the nationwide age to purchase tobacco to 21, while lawmakers continue to debate an all-out menthol tobacco ban that would hit many of Reynolds’ best-selling products.
Reynolds, owned by British American Tobacco, had been looking to diversify for several years. Before buying the Kentucky lab, the tobacco giant was “pulling apart the tobacco plant” looking for other uses than cigarettes, recounts James Figlar, executive vice president of research and development.
Coming up with new business lines is one thing, but chasing an epidemic that’s sickened in excess of 60,000 people in more than two dozen countries is quite another.
Reynolds American bought the Kentucky lab in January 2014, just two months before World Health Organization flagged the first cases of what would, over the next two years, become the deadliest Ebola virus outbreak on record, killing more than 11,000 people in West Africa. Kentucky BioSciences quickly focused all of its resources on producing a tobacco-derived component for the combination therapy ZMapp, one of the first experimental Ebola treatments to become available.
Hopes were high in the early days of the outbreak. The FDA fast-tracked a safety review in 2015 and public health officials authorized its use as cases climbed. But over time, data began to show two other treatments were markedly more effective than ZMapp. The results were significant enough for researchers to halt a study early and recommend that health care workers abandon ZMapp in favor of the others.
Reynolds and others behind ZMapp were not the only companies to pour millions into Ebola treatments or vaccines that may never be used again. It’s a big risk for companies, especially in emergencies where health officials may ask for thousands of doses of a still-unapproved experimental treatment that shows promise.
“You invest hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to scale up on something that you hope might work. That’s the real glitch there,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at an Aspen Institute event this week. “It is going to be a challenge to get a major company to do that.”
“There is no question that a lot of them lost a lot of money on trying to make an Ebola vaccine,” said Ron Klain, who was President Barack Obama’s Ebola “czar.”
Growing vaccines on tobacco plants could still hold the promise of lower overhead and less financial risk for companies, because the plants can start producing needed compounds in a matter of weeks, the University of Louisville’s Palmer said.
Moreover, the prospect of making drugs rather than hooking new smokers is posing new questions about tobacco’s place in the world.
“As a scientist and a researcher, I am not enthusiastic about the business of producing and selling tobacco products,” Palmer said. “But I think that tobacco companies are probably drawing on a lot of experience … It is perhaps logical and perhaps beautiful that tobacco companies are involved.”