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Tobacco Plants Found Capable of Producing Malaria Drug

Scientists say they have figured out a way to use tobacco plants to produce artemisinin, a highly effective anti-malaria drug.

Malaria infects an estimated 200 million people each year, resulting in 400,000 deaths. The drug artemisinin is sometimes used to treat the mosquito-borne illness, clearing the parasite from the bloodstream within 48 hours, according to experts. However, it is very expensive.

Artemisinin comes from an herbal plant grown in China called sweet wormwood. It takes 18 months to grow, extract and produce only a small amount of the effective compound, according to bioengineer Shashi Kumar at the U.N. International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi.

“That increases the cost of this drug, and the people who are suffering most and poor are not able to afford this costly drug,” Kumar said. “That is why we are looking at some source which can be grown everywhere, like the African continent or the Indian continent, easily. Tobacco is that crop.”

Kumar and colleagues have figured out a way to insert wormwood genes into tobacco plants.

Tobacco is a hardy plant and when the gene is inserted, a precursor compound of artemisinin shows up in its broad sturdy leaves.

Scientists at the U.N. Center tested the effectiveness of tobacco-produced artemisinin on rodents infected with Plasmodium berghei, a parasite that causes malaria in rats and is often used as an experimental model for genetic engineered treatments. Kumar said the artemisinin from tobacco leaves was more effective than the currently available drug.

But more tests are needed to see whether the tobacco-derived artemisinin drug is equally effective against P. falciparum, the parasite that causes the most dangerous form of the disease in humans.

Kumar and colleagues are now looking at ways to grow the anti-malaria drug in other, more edible plants.

“What we can do [is] we put this drug into edible plants like lettuce or spinach, where you can just make a powder, put that powder in a capsule and the capsule can be stored like in medical stores or anywhere from where the people can easily buy at a very cheap or very affordable price.”

News about tobacco-grown artemisinin was published in the Cell press journal Molecular Plant.

Kumar says no big tobacco companies have come forward volunteering to produce artemisinin. However, he is hopeful, given that the technology will be made freely available, that there will be some takers.

Nicotine given independently from tobacco may ward off Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease

Nicotine given independently from tobacco may help ward off Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. It is a common knowledge that tobacco and tobacco products are bad for your health, but new research findings suggest that nicotine alone may offer protective properties to the brain.

The researchers added nicotine to the drinking water of the study animals. There were three different groups that received three different concentrations of nicotine similar to those received by occasional, low, and medium smokers.

There was also a control group that did not receive any nicotine.

The two groups that received low and medium dosages did not show any levels of the drug in their system. Nor did they experience any changes in their eating habits, body weight, or number of receptors in the brain where nicotine acts.

The group that had the highest dosage of nicotine ate less, gained less weight, and had more receptors, which means the drug gets into the brain and effect behavioral changes.

Lead researcher Ursula Winzer-Serhan said, “Some people say that nicotine decreases anxiety, which is why people smoke, but others say it increases anxiety. The last thing you would want in a drug that is given chronically would be a negative change in behavior. Luckily, we didn’t find any evidence of anxiety: Only two measures showed any effect even with high levels of nicotine, and if anything, nicotine made animal models less anxious.”

“I want to make it very clear that we’re not encouraging people to smoke. Even if these weren’t very preliminary results, smoking results in so many health problems that any possible benefit of the nicotine would be more than cancelled out. However, smoking is only one possible route of administration of the drug, and our work shows that we shouldn’t write off nicotine completely,” Winzer-Serhan cautioned.

Eating foods that contain small amounts of nicotine, like peppers and tomatoes, may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Previous studies have shown that smoking and other tobacco plants reduced the risk of Parkinson’s disease, but whether nicotine in other components could offer similar benefits has not been yet confirmed.

The researchers recruited 490 newly diagnosed Parkinson’s disease patients and another 644 persons without neurological disease. Questionnaires were used to assess participants’ lifetime diets and tobacco use.

Vegetable consumption did not affect the risk of Parkinson’s disease, but the increased consumption of edible Solanaceae (a plant family which includes some edible sources of nicotine) was associated with a reduction in Parkinson’s disease risk. The best results were associated with pepper consumption.

Researcher Dr. Searles Nielsen concluded, “Our study is the first to investigate dietary nicotine and risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. Similar to the many studies that indicate tobacco use might reduce risk of Parkinson’s, our findings also suggest a protective effect from nicotine, or perhaps a similar but less toxic chemical in peppers and tobacco.”