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Posted on Thursday, February 28, 2019

Plant repurpose

Tobacco plants have been transformed into "green bioreactors" to benefit human health

Researchers from Western University and Lawson Health Research Institute are using tobacco plants as "green bioreactors" to produce an anti-inflammatory protein with potent therapeutic potential.

Plants are being used to produce large amounts of a human protein called Interleukin 37 or IL-37. Protein naturally occurs in the human kidney in very small quantities and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties and suppressors of immune properties, providing potential for treating a series of inflammatory and autoimmune disorders such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, and arthritis.

"This protein is a master regulator of inflammation in the body and has been shown in preclinical models to be effective in treating a large number of diseases," said Dr. Tony Jevnikar, a professor at the School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western Schulich and Scientist at Lawson. "The human kidney produces IL-37, but not nearly enough to get rid of an inflammatory lesion."

And while a promise was shown in animal models, the use of IL-37 was clinically limited due to the inability to produce in large quantities at a clinically feasible price. Currently, it can be done in very small quantities using E. coli bacteria, but at a very high cost.

That's where the tobacco plants enter.

This work is the first of its kind to demonstrate that this functional human protein can be produced in plant cells. "Plants offer the potential to produce pharmaceutical products in a much more accessible way than the current methods," said Shengwu Ma, doctor, deputy professor of the Department of Biology in the West and Lawson scientist. "Tobacco is high yield and we can temporarily transform the plant so we can get the protein of interest within two weeks."

Researchers have demonstrated in a recent study ( published in the Plant Cell Reports magazine, that the protein can be extracted and quantified from the plant in one cell that keeps its function. Now they have shown that they can produce the protein in tobacco, it can be translated to other plants, such as potatoes.

Dr. Jevnikar is investigating the effect that IL-37 has to prevent organ injury during transplantation. When an organ is removed for the transplant and then transferred to a recipient, the inflammation occurs when the blood flow is restored to the organ. He and his team believe that IL-37 offers a way to prevent this injury.

"I hope that this work will affect a change in the way people see plants and, fortunately, this vision will be a way to provide patient treatments that are effective and accessible," said Dr. Jevnikar.

A downloadable image of the researchers is available here: is distributed twice a week; Tuesday and Thursday

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