Page last updated at 21:49 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 22:49 UK

Tobacco 'could help treat cancer'

Tobacco plant
The tobacco plant may provide a cheap vaccine factory

The tobacco plant - responsible for millions of cancer cases - may actually offer the means to treat one form of the disease, a study suggests.

US scientists used the plant to "grow" key components of a cancer vaccine.

The National Academy of Sciences study suggests they could be used to tackle a form of lymphoma.

UK specialists said while "potentially exciting", more research would be needed to test how well the vaccine actually worked.

It's pretty cool technology - and it's really ironic that you would make a treatment for cancer out of tobacco
Dr Ronald Levy
Stanford University

The ironic new role for tobacco is the work of researchers from Stanford University in California.

They are using the plants as factories for an antibody chemical specific to the cells which cause follicular B-cell lymphoma, a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

These antibodies are put into a patient newly-diagnosed with the disease, to "prime" the body's immune system to attack any cell carrying them.

If successful, this would mean the body would then recognise and destroy the lymphoma cells.

However, every patient's antibodies are different, and would need to be produced quickly once the diagnosis was made.

The idea is not a new one - attempts have already been made to grow these antibodies inside animal cells, with mixed success.

However, a plant-grown vaccine would be much cheaper and in theory could carry less risk to the patient, as animal cells might hold unknown viruses.

So far, the experimental vaccine has only been tested on a handful of patients to check for any side-effects of using plant-produced antibodies, so its effectiveness at fighting the disease is uncertain.

'Infected' plants

Dr Ronald Levy, who is leading the research, said: "It's pretty cool technology - and it's really ironic that you would make a treatment for cancer out of tobacco. That appealed to me."

The technique is relatively straightforward. Once a patient's cancer cells are isolated in the laboratory, the gene responsible for producing the antibody is extracted and added to the "tobacco mosaic virus".

The plants are then "infected" with the virus, and as it spreads through the cells, the added gene starts the process of producing large quantities of the antibody.

After just a few days a few leaves are taken, ground up, and the antibody extracted from them.

Only a few plants are needed to make enough vaccine for a patient.

Professor Charles Arntzen, from Arizona State University, said that the sheer speed of the production process could convince patients to wait for their own tailored vaccine rather than undergoing other treatment.

A spokesman for Cancer Research UK, said: "While these results could potentially be very exciting, this was a small and early-stage trial and it did not look at whether this vaccination strategy reduced the size of the tumours."

"This is a good foundation for future work, but a larger study will be needed to test the success of this plant-made antibody in fighting non-Hodgkin's lymphoma."

Tattoos may help deliver vaccine
07 Feb 08 |  Science/Nature

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