Prof. Alexander Vainstein in his greenhouse.

Cigarettes made from the tobacco plant kill millions of people each year, but the very same plant now has enormous lifesaving potential, thanks to a research team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, led by Prof. Alexander Vainstein.

Genetically altered tobacco from his lab is programmed to produce an effective ingredient for fighting malaria.

Now being commercialized through the university’s Yissum Research Development Company, Vainstein’s tobacco plant manufactures a natural compound called artemisinin that’s recognized as an effective treatment for drug-resistant malaria.

Normally, artemisinin is produced in small quantities by the sweet wormwood plant artemisia annua and it can also be made synthetically. But artemisinin’s prohibitive cost has made it impractical as a remedy for the millions of people who would benefit from it.

The new technology involves splicing the compound-creating enzymatic pathways of the wormwood into the fast-growing tobacco plant so that abundant artemisinin can be made readily available at low cost.

Details on the breakthrough were published in December by Vainstein and fellow researchers in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“Professor Vainstein’s technology provides, for the first time, the opportunity for manufacturing affordable artemisinin by using tobacco plants,” said Yissum CEO Yaacov Michlin. “We hope that this invention will eventually help control [malaria], for the benefit of many millions of people around the globe, and in particular in the developing world.”

About half a billion people each year suffer from the mosquito-borne parasitic infection in Africa and East Asia and other tropical and sub-tropical regions. Of those, about a million die of the disease. Malaria is an especially a serious problem in Africa, both for residents and tourists.

Yissum patent attorney Tamar Gallily.

In Israel, malaria was eradicated only about 50 years ago, after the northern Hula Swamp — a major breeding ground for mosquitoes — was drained.

Ready to be commercialized

Yissum patent attorney Tamar Gallily tells ISRAEL21c that she expects large pharmaceutical companies, and newly emerging plant-based pharmaceutical developers, will be interested in becoming strategic partners or licensees of the Hebrew University invention.

The matured and natural chemical pathways in plants provide a newer and more efficient way to produce drugs than do existing animal models, she notes.

“The advantage of using plants is that they don’t have animal viruses, with less hazards for infection,” she says. “There have been efforts over the last 10 years to bioengineer artemisinin in microbes and plants, but no lab was able to synthesize the creation of the drug.”

It is not a simple technology, she adds, but the tobacco plant is easy to cultivate and grows rapidly. Nor is it difficult to extract the active compounds from tobacco. Vainstein and his graduate student Moran Farhi used genetically engineered tobacco plants, which carry the genes that can encode, or translate, the biochemical pathway for producing artemisinin. The research project was sponsored by Isaac Kaye of London.

Gallily adds that the tobacco-derived artemisinin isn’t itself a pharmaceutical, but would be the active ingredient in a medication prescribed for malaria.

This groundbreaking research from Israel could be a significant stepping stone toward meeting the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by the end of 2015. In Africa, 20 percent of childhood deaths are due to the effects of the disease and every 30 seconds a child dies from malaria.