Tobacco leaves- a cure for COVID-19?

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Using the latest techniques to cultivate and sequence the genome of the Nicotiana Benthamiana, a close relative of the tobacco plant, researchers taking part in the European funded Newcotiana project say they are able to produce tailor-made molecules to fight disease. Native to Australia, the Nicotiana Benthamiana plant has been used to help produce vaccines and antibodies for viruses such as Ebola.

By injecting other DNA into its leaves, its genes can be modified to create specific pharmaceutical products in very large amounts.

“We give the plants instructions to improve them, to change specific genes. For example, we are interested in having plants that do not flower. We want to grow plants that produce more biomass, because those are the kinds of things we want the plant to do,” says Marta Vázquez, a biotechnology research at IBMCP.

Hopes are high the technique, which harnesses the plant’s cells and sap, could eventually help pave the way to producing a COVID-19 vaccine. Experts say the approach has several advantages. It can produce large amounts of the required protein, is low-cost compared to other methods and and is safe.

“Plants are very useful for researchers as they are another mean of expressing viral proteins or nucleic acids without having to actually work with the causative virus itself. And we can use techniques of synthetic biology to make things like virus-like particles without handling the infectious virus,” says George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre.