Tobacco's potential health benefits

An Israeli company discovers that the tobacco plant may serve as a tool to produce collagen - a key ingredient for healing.

311_ciggies (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You usually don’t think of tobacco as being good for you – quite the opposite. But here’s a modern Israeli discovery: The plant that, in cigarette form, is responsible for the scourge of lung cancer and emphysema is also responsible for healing wounds, repairing bones, regenerating nerves, fixing tendons and ligaments, and dozens of other health applications. Credit Israeli biotech pioneer CollPlant with coming up with a way of getting human collagen – a key ingredient in all these healing and repair processes – out of a tobacco plant.
“We are the only company in the world that can make human collagen out of a plant,” says CollPlant CEO Yehiel Tal. “Until now, manufacturers have used cows, pigs and even human corpses as sources of collagen for use in regenerative medicine, and each of those sources is problematic. With our system, patients are assured of getting real, human collagen that will allow the body to repair itself quickly and efficiently.”
Collagen is one of those must-have elements in the body, playing a major role in the connective tissue that basically keeps us walking around on two feet. Collagen is the most abundant protein in mammals, found in fibrous tissues such as tendons, ligaments and skin, as well as in cornea, cartilage, bone, blood vessels, the gut and intervertebral discs. It’s used in plastic surgery, wound and burn healing, tissue regeneration, orthopedics – even heart surgery.
“There’s a huge market here, and of course there are hundreds of products that doctors can use for a variety of collagen-based uses,” says Tal. “Our unique solution overcomes the disadvantages associated with other collagen sources.”
When a bone breaks, or there’s damage to an organ or other component, the body ramps up its production of collagen to help fix things. Often, however, the body needs help. In a clean bone break, for example, it’s usually enough to splint together the two broken parts of the bone, and the body will take care of the repair. But if there’s a gap in the bone, the body will not regenerate the missing piece; instead, doctors will insert collagen from outside the body – often combined with other elements – using a scaffold to hold the elements in place so the body can use the inserted collagen to make the repair.
But humans are different from cows and pigs – and so is their collagen. Although bovine or porcine collagen can be used to help repair the body, it’s a far less efficient process – and there’s always the risk of disease. CollPlant’s system offers a better solution, eliminating the need to harvest it from animals or dead humans.
It pulls this trick off by inserting human collagen genes into tobacco plants, and raising the plants in hothouses, under the supervision of the company’s scientific staff. Why tobacco?
“It’s not part of the seed or food chain, so the likelihood of the plants getting infected – and in turn infecting patients – is low,” says Tal. “Tobacco also has a big biomass, and it grows quickly; you can grow a 6-foottall [2-meter] plant in under two months. Plus, it’s easily controllable – we know how much collagen there is in the leaves our plants produce, and can regulate its strength. And tobacco leaves are big, so they hold lots of collagen.”
Collplant, which was established in 2004, has about 45 employees, and is traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange – so it’s a well-established start-up. And the company already has deals with several multinational companies for some of its products, including Edwards Life Sciences and Pfizer.
“Our technology can be used for numerous applications,” says Tal. “We are collaborating with Edwards on a cardiovascular product, and with Pfizer on an orthopedic application. We have other products and applications in the pipeline for partners, who do the testing and the marketing. And we are developing a product which we will market ourselves.”
One product, which is being evaluated by the FDA, is a bandage containing a scaffold made up of CollPlant-produced collagen, to treat acute and chronic wounds, ulcers, surgical wounds, abrasions and second-degree burns.
“One of the advantages of bioengineering in general is that you can control the collagen on a molecular level, so we can insert special features when needed,” says Tal. “For example, when developing a heart valve, we have to make sure that the product is very strong – and much of the product is based on collagen. So we can engineer the tobacco leaves to produce stronger collagen.”
CollPlant’s collagen solution was invented by the company’s chief scientist, Prof. Oded Shoseyov, who also established the company in the North, at Yesud Hama’ala. Now based in Rehovot, CollPlant retains its northern production facility “because we grew up in an incubator there, and we want to help ensure the economic viability of the area,” says Tal.
The tobacco plants themselves are grown in hothouses around the country, and there’s more than enough space.
“In one kibbutz, you could grow enough of our tobacco plants to produce all the collagen used by the orthopedic collagen market worldwide,” Tal says. “We are recognized around the world as having the most innovative collagen solution on the market, and we are busy working out partnership deals and developing new products, all based on our core technology.”
Who would have thought that tobacco, of all things, could actually be healthy?