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Cancer-fighting tobacco plants?

Cancer-fighting tobacco plants?

Genetic engineering may turn ordinary tobacco plants into temporary "mini-factories" capable of producing anticancer drugs and other products.

Researchers at Biosource Genetics Corp. of Vacaville, Calif., have developed a virus-like vector system in which they spray tobacco plants with a solution or powder containing recombinant RNA molecules packaged in a protein coating. In laboratory tests, they report, the vector enters the tobacco plant through a cut in the leaf, where it begins to direct production of a specific protein such as the anticancer drugs interleukin-2 or interferon. In addition, scientists hope to get the tobacco plant to make serum albumin, a blood protein used in transfusions.

Conventional genetic engineers aim at producing a stable plant with foreign genes permanently inserted into the host plant's chromosomes. These new genes can be passed down from generation to generation. But Biosource has developed a transient system by using an RNA-based vector that does not get inserted into the plant's DNA. The vector remains in the cell's cytoplasm, where it directs protein production for a few days to a few weeks and then is broken down by the plant.

"There is no investment required by seed developers to stabilize the new genetic traits and breed them into commercially competitive varieties," says Robert L. Erwin, president of the firm. "The farmer's normal, commodity tobacco crop can be changed into a specialty crop for noncigarette use simply by applying the transient gene expression system in much the same way that an agricultural chemical might be applied."

Biosource has tested the system on laboratory-grown tobacco plants and plans to field-test its method in about a year. The private firm must get its system past regulatory hurdles posed by the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture before marketing the product to tobacco farmers interested in transforming their fields. Erwin says he envisions tobacco farmers spraying the vector system on their crop, harvesting the leaves and then selling them to a drug-manufacturing firm that would extract the protein.
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Title Annotation:Oncology
Author:Fackelmann, Kathy A.
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 15, 1989
Words:335
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