Kentucky Company Hoping to Turn Traditional Crop into a Life Saver

Posted on May 6, 2020

Tobacco could prove to be helpful in the fight against COVID-19 

It is no secret that tobacco production has been on the decline for several years and for a number of reasons, including waning consumer use of tobacco products. As more and more tobacco users turn away from its usage, one Kentucky company is looking at this very traditional crop for use in a very non-traditional way – as a possible means to combat the COVID-19 virus.

When the Ebola outbreak swept through West Africa beginning in 2014, Kentucky BioProcessing, (KBP) Inc. played a major role in developing a drug treatment for the disease. And now, with the coronavirus pandemic spreading throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, KBP is working to create a potential vaccine for this disease.

According to information from Reynolds America, Inc., KBP’s parent company, the Owensboro based bio-tech company is in the process of developing a vaccine candidate and has recently begun pre-clinical testing.

KBP Chief Executive Officer Hugh Haydon said developing a vaccine is a marathon, not a sprint, and is a complex and challenging process.

“But we’re proud of our progress so far. As many health authorities have acknowledged, there is a shared goal among hundreds of research organizations working to solve for the Coronavirus challenge, and we are hopeful that our tobacco research can contribute in some way to that answer,” he said.

KBP’s current research in looking for a potential vaccine for COVID-19 using tobacco plants is part of its vaccine platform, developed in recent years. But KBP research is diverse in many ways.

“KBP is a world leader in using tobacco and other plants to produce pharmaceuticals and other high value products,” said Haydon. “While much of our work is aimed at using this technology for vaccines and pharmaceutical applications, our processes, technologies and know-how also have the potential to yield products for many other commercial applications.”

Haydon noted that the company’s technologies and the processes developed there make it possible to use the biochemical processes of tobacco plants to produce specific proteins more efficiently and effectively than can be produced using other biological systems.

“Today, we are focused on developing a standardized template to produce highly effective vaccines that target a wide variety of diseases, while meeting regulatory requirements for process and production control,” he said.

Haydon noted that based on the COVID-19 genetic sequence, their research efforts have isolated two separate antigens they believe might be able to neutralize the virus, and have now expressed and purified sufficient quantities of each to allow for pre-clinical testing.

“A critical part of developing any vaccine is understanding the structure of the pathogen or disease you’re trying to treat,” he said. “For the coronavirus, once Chinese authorities released the genetic sequence of COVID-19, KBP scientists began to examine its structure and make a hypothesis about a vaccine that could be structured to neutralize it.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the research is how valuable the tobacco plant has proven to be in moving forward in the efforts being made to come up with a vaccine.

“The technologies and processes that KBP developed make it possible to harness the biochemical processes of tobacco plants to produce specific complex proteins (antigens) much more rapidly and effectively than they can be produced using other more traditional methods,” said Haydon.

Haydon added that after a reasonable hypothesis regarding how the infection works was known, KBP created an antigen that is genetically similar to a portion of the virus. That antigen is designed to trigger an immune response, which initiates the creation of antibodies that would fight the virus.

“The genetic sequence for this antigen design is then inserted into tobacco plants. As the plant recognizes the new genetic code it reproduces the antigen,” he said. “Following several days of incubation where the plant continues to reproduce the targeted antigen, plants are harvested, and the target antigen is extracted and purified. All of this occurs under strict quality parameters designed to meet FDA and other regulatory standards.”

Chris Dixon, Vice President of Leaf Operations at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company said tobacco has always been central to Kentucky agriculture, and Reynolds American’s operating companies have always been at the center of tobacco science and technology, and continue to invest and believe in the American tobacco farmer.

“As our affiliate, KBP leads the way on developing bio-pharmaceutical applications for this remarkable plant, and R.J. Reynolds continues its long-standing support for agricultural research and development through partnerships with the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, and other academic institutions,” he said. “Their discoveries continue to lead to increased quality and yields and help keep tobacco farmers in Kentucky and other states going strong in a competitive market.”

Kentucky Farm Bureau President Mark Haney said the research being conducted by KBP using tobacco is nothing short of amazing and couldn’t come at a better time.

“With so many depending on the efforts of companies like Kentucky BioProcessing, we are appreciative of the work they do and are proud to see such promising breakthroughs being discovered by a Kentucky-based company,” he said. “The research they are conducting using tobacco plants to produce life-saving drugs is truly remarkable and we are hopeful for their continued success in the fight against COVID-19.”