Using tobacco to produce drugs and cosmetics instead of cigarettes
Using tobacco to produce ‘allies’ for people’s health and wellbeing is the goal of the Newcotiana project, funded with 7.2 million euro by the European Union, in which Italy participates through ENEA.
The three-year initiative, recently launched, involves 19 research centres and companies from 7 European countries and Australia, and is coordinated by the Spanish Research Council.
Newcotiana stems from the idea that plants traditionally used in the tobacco industry can be ‘reprogrammed’ to produce molecules for vaccines, antibodies and cosmetic products instead of nicotine. The project aims to revive, in a sustainable manner, a sector that has had a six-fold decline in thirty years, both in Italy and across Europe.
“The species we will use are the cultivated tobacco Nicotiana tabacum and its Australian relative Nicotiana benthamiana, which has already been used in ‘molecular farming’ for the production of the experimental anti-Ebola drug ZMAPP”, explained ENEA geneticist Giovanni Giuliano.
The researchers will modify the genetic composition of plants but without creating transgenic products. To this end, they will use New Plant Breeding Techniques: new technologies for genetic improvement through which it is possible to produce genetic modifications similar to those obtained using the more traditional methods of random mutagenesis and cross-breeding.
The gene editing techniques employed by the researchers include the innovative CRISPR/Cas9, which allows them to act directly on the DNA, cutting and pasting it at a specific point.
But why test these innovative ‘biofactories’ on tobacco plants? Easy to transform and genetically well known to researchers, this plant produces high biomass yields. In addition, it is not an edible species and therefore there are no risks of contamination, even accidental, of the food chain.
In Italy, the scientists involved in the project will focus on the production of substances to be used in the prevention and treatment of different types of diseases.
“In the ENEA laboratories we will focus in particular on the production of small molecules, such as carotenoids, which have an eye protection function, and pyridine alkaloids, useful in the palliative treatment of diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s”, concluded the ENEA researcher who represents Italy in the EU project.