Norfolk researchers use tobacco to produce new vaccines and drugs

Professor George Lomonossoff at the John Innes Centre

Professor George Lomonossoff at the John Innes Centre - Credit: ArchanJ

Tobacco is not normally associated with health benefits but researchers at the John Innes Centre in Norwich are contributing to a new European Union-funded project that uses tobacco plants to produce vaccines and new drugs.

The laboratory of Professor George Lomonossoff will help deliver the Newcotiana project, which is looking at new plant breeding techniques to produce medical and cosmetic products from a dwarf tobacco variety called Nicotiana benthamiana.

The project is coordinated by scientists at the Institute for Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology (IBMCP) and includes industrial and academic partners from eight European countries as well as Australia.

Mr Lomonossoff said: “We will breed new varieties of tobacco and Nicotiana benthamiana that will work safely and efficiently as biofactories. Plants will be used as production platforms for molecular farming to harvest high value medical substances.”

The mostly commonly known tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, is a crop used produce cigarettes but tobacco plants can also be used for other purposes that are beneficial for health. Instead of drying the leaves to make cigarettes, researchers have found promising new plant breeding techniques to turn tobacco leaves into efficient plant factories for medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products.

One of these is Nicotiana benthamiana, a dwarf tobacco relative from Australia which is especially suited for indoors production of bio-pharmaceuticals.