These Bioengineered Tobacco Plants are Growing Pharmaceuticals of the Future

PlantForm senior technician John Teat, left, and research scientist Dr. Haifeng Wang, inspect tobacco plants that are producing antibodies. Image: PlantForm Corporation
Are cigarettes the new cure for cancer? No, definitely not. But thanks to developments in genetic engineering, tobacco farming has become an unlikely way to produce cancer-treating drugs.


Plant-derived medicines have been around forever, but until the development of a process called biopharming, they’ve been restricted to whatever naturally-occurring medicines the plants themselves could produce. Now scientists are converting plants like Nicotiana benthamiana and Nicotiana tobaccum into manufacturing platforms for a wide range of targeted protein-based therapies to treat Ebola, cancer and HIV/AIDS.

PlantForm, a Guelph, Ontario-based company, is one of a few dozen biotech firms around the world developing these plant-made pharmaceuticals (PMPs). Only one such drug has so far made it to market—Elelyso, which is made by an an Israeli company called Protalix and used to treat a rare disease called Gaucher disease. But many more are on the way, including PlantForm’s version of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, scheduled to become available in 2016.

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