A biopharmaceutical company owned by Reynolds American Inc. is attempting again to determine whether tobacco plants can play a role in battling coronavirus.
Kentucky BioProcessing LLC is infecting fast-growing tobacco plants with a genetically modified coronavirus to see if it can produce antibodies for a possible vaccine, according to Politico.
Reynolds bought certain assets and liabilities of Kentucky BioProcessing in January 2014
A viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 74,000 people globally, including more than 2,000 confirmed deaths, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.
Kentucky BioProcessing has contacted the federal Health and Human Services Department about its coronavirus work. It said it could provide a sample to the government by early March.
“People can be cynical. But the fact is that we might be able to help,” Hugh Haydon, Kentucky BioProcessing’s chief executive, told Politico.
Reynolds has made limited public comment about Kentucky BioProcessing over the year.
Reynolds spokeswoman Kaelan Hollon said Tuesday when asked about the coronavirus connection with Kentucky BioProcessing that, “I will keep you updated as it develops.”
Moderna Therapeutics and Johnson & Johnson are the only companies that have publicly acknowledged working on a coronavirus vaccine, both with federal government support.
In 2015-16, the subsidiary assisted Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. of San Diego with developing ZMapp, a drug that had limited success in treating the Ebola virus. Kentucky BioProcessing is a contract manufacturer for ZMapp.
ZMapp is a cocktail of three antibodies directed against the Zaire strain of Ebola virus responsible for the 2014 epidemic.
Tobacco leaves have had limited success with helping fight virus-based illnesses.
For example, Politico cited the Pentagon’s medical research arm saying tobacco plants were used in 2012 for the quick development of 10 million doses of flu vaccine.
The Politico report contained several caveats with the Kentucky BioProcessing and coronavirus research.
“It would take thousands of doses to come up with an experimental treatment. Reynolds’ work is in the very early stages, meaning the outbreak could subside before a cure is close to perfected. And some vaccines may not be 100% effective against all the strains of a target disease, as was the case with Ebola,” Politico reported
Scott Ballin, past chairman of the anti-smoking alliance Coalition of Science or Health, said “tobacco is considered the ‘white rat’ of the plant world and probably the best plant for genetic manipulation ... better than, say, corn.
“GMO tobacco is being grown in a number of tobacco states, not just by tobacco companies, but also by pharmaceutical companies, etc.”
Politico cited — not by name — the once-promising research by Reynolds biopharmaceutical spinoff Targacept Inc.
According to research, nicotine binds to very specific receptors in the brain that are important for thinking and memory and may have neuroprotective effects. People with Alzheimer’s disease are known to lose some of those receptors.
It’s the same nicotinic-receptor research theory that Winston-Salem’s Targacept attempted for several years by developing drugs before halting in July 2014 after a series of clinical trial failures.
In a current study involving Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, researchers are trying to determine whether nicotine patches can improve memory and functioning in people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.
If tobacco plants can be proven to play a role in treating and curing viruses, it could present a financial lifeline to the manufacturers as consumer demand for traditional cigarettes continue to shrink.
Analysts say there could be push back from anti-tobacco advocates about a tobacco manufacturer playing a public-health role — similar to the reaction that greeted the idea cartridge-based electronic cigarettes could wean adult smokers from traditional cigarettes.
“From a scientific standpoint, tobacco plants and their extracts have much potential, and Reynolds has long sought the associated business opportunities,” said David Sweanor, an adjunct law professor at the University of Ottawa and the author of several e-cigarette studies.
“The scientific uses of tobacco have run up against the demonization of the plant and any company dealing with it, and Reynolds has been punished rather than rewarded for its efforts on the science and technology”, Sweanor said.
“If Reynolds helped find a vaccine for the coronavirus, we can assume that many anti-nicotine advocates would ironically feel sickened.”