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Although tobacco isn't famous for its health benefits, scientists have succeeded in using genetically modified tobacco plants to produce medicines for several autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, including diabetes.

A large team of scientists from several European research organizations set out to create transgenic tobacco plants that would produce biologically-active interleukin-10 (IL-10), a potent anti-inflammatory cytokine. They tried two different versions of IL-10 (one from a virus, one from the mouse) and generated plants in which this protein was targeted to three different compartments within the cell, to see which would work most effectively.

The researchers found that tobacco plants were able to process both forms of IL-10 correctly, producing the active cytokine at high enough levels that it might be possible to use tobacco leaves without lengthy extraction and purification processes. The next step will be to feed the plants to mice with autoimmune diseases to find out how effective they are.

The researchers are planning on using the plants to see whether repeated small doses could help prevent type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM), in combination with other auto-antigens associated with the disease. The team has a particular auto-antigen in its sights - the 65-kDa isoform of the enzyme glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD65) - which they have also produced in transgenic tobacco plants.

Researchers say that transgenic plants are attractive systems for the production of therapeutic proteins because they offer the possibility of large scale production at low cost, and they have low maintenance requirements. The fact that they can be eaten, which delivers the drug where it is needed, thus avoiding lengthy purification procedures, is another plus compared with traditional drug synthesis.

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I cannot imagine myself eating tobacco plant with all that nicotine in it. Tobacco smoke is stinky enough. But this is definitely a step in the right direction.
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