Tobacco is being used as key ingredient in some coronavirus vaccines

"If you wanted to be cynical about it, you could. But we tend to think of it as like at the end of the day, the tobacco plant in and of itself is still just a plant."

Nicotiana benthamiana plants are pictured at Medicago greenhouse in Quebec City, August 13, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nicotiana benthamiana plants are pictured at Medicago greenhouse in Quebec City, August 13, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The tobacco plant is being used by some drug companies as a key ingredient in the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
Throughout history, indigenous people of North America and Alaska have revered the tobacco plant for its use in medicinal practices in addition to using it in spiritual ceremonies. In recent years however, the plant has been given a bad name due to the use of one tobacco strain called Nicotiana tabacum for producing cigarettes. 
This particular strain, one of at least seventy known tobacco strains, is responsible for over 480,000 deaths a year, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC). 
Now, two North American biotech companies developing coronavirus vaccine might bring the plant into a slightly more positive limelight as they use a strain called Nicotiana benthamiana as bio-factories to produce a key protein from the coronavirus that can be used in a vaccine, according to an NPR report. 
The two companies are Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) and Medicago, which is based out of Canada. 
"There's obvious irony there," said James Figlar, executive vice president for research and development for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, which owns KBP. 
"If you wanted to be cynical about it, you could," Figlar said. "But we tend to think of it as like at the end of the day, the tobacco plant in and of itself is still just a plant."
Vaccines work by imitating an infection, convincing the immune system that it has been exposed to a pathogen, which in turn causes the immune system to produce T-lymphoctes and antibodies, according to the CDC. 
There are multiple ways of doing that, one of which is to introduce something to the immune system that looks like a virus, but isn't infectious. This approach is what Kentucky Bioprocessing is using. 

THE PROCESS begins by harvesting 25-day-old plants grown in a greenhouse. Workers then infect the plant by dipping it in a solution which contains microorganisms called agrobacteria. The bacteria have been modified to contain instructions for making a protein from the coronavirus which the tobacco plants will take up, according to NPR
Seven days after the plant has been infected in the dipping process, it goes through an extraction and purification process.
"At the end of the cycle, we have 99.9% pure protein," KBP president Hugh Haydon told NPR. 
A separate set of plants produces a tiny particle for packaging the viral protein. Both components, which are manufactured and packaged separately, are then chemically attached. 
The end product is what can be injected into humans as a vaccine, and is what is expected to prompt an immune response that in theory should protect someone from dying from the coronavirus. 
"To all intents and purposes, it looks like a virus," says Bruce Clark, CEO of Medicago.
"When it presents to the body, it looks and generates a response like a virus, but it has no genetic material inside," so it can't actually infect someone, said Clark. 
Medicago has already begun testing its vaccine candidate in humans. The company's executive said in early October that the phase 1 study results for its potential vaccine are expected by the middle of the month.
KBP said that one of the benefits to the vaccine is that it can be stored at room temperature, unlike conventional vaccines which often require refrigeration, giving it a significant advantage over other vaccines. 
KBP is the unit developing the vaccine for British American Tobacco BATS.L, the maker of Dunhill and Lucky Strike cigarettes. The company announced its attempt at making a vaccine in April, stating that it is working with the US Food and Drug Administration on the next steps and was also engaged with UK health authorities to bring its vaccine to clinical studies as soon as possible.
“We believe we have made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology platform and stand ready to work with governments and all stakeholders to help win the war against COVID-19,” David O’Reilly, director of Scientific Research at BAT, said in a statement.
KBP made headlines a few years ago when it said it had created an effective treatment against Ebola called ZMapp, in conjunction with California-based Mapp Biopharmaceuticals. 

Reuters contributed to this report.