Doctors condemn cigarettes for causing lung cancer, so it might seem strange to hear the former director of the National Cancer Institute praising tobacco.
But that's what happened Monday when a company announced plans to turn tobacco plants into factories for cheap mass production of anti-cancer drugs, better sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and many other products."It is really kind of cute," Dr. Vincent T. DeVita Jr. said during the American Cancer Society's science writers seminar. "It's a very interesting idea. It sounds too good to be true but looks real enough to pursue."
DeVita left his government post last year to become physician-in-chief at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
"It's a way to use tobacco for products other than cigarettes for smoking," said geneticist Robert L. Erwin, president of Biosource Genetics Corp. of Vacaville. "This technology might be a way to reduce the cost of producing many medically important chemicals."
Erwin said the company has applied for patents on its method of genetically engineering tobacco plants with a spray to make them produce various desired products. The company also wants to patent use of the process to help make melanin, a natural skin pigment that might be sold as a more effective screen against hazardous ultraviolet sunlight.
Erwin said experiments so far were performed indoors, where tobacco plants and cells successfully produced two enzymes to test the method, as well as an enzyme that helps make melanin.
Within a year, he said, the company hopes to conduct field tests of genetically engineered tobacco to produce the anti-cancer drug interleukin-2 and serum albumin, a major protein in blood that is used as a supplement in transfusions.
Erwin said other potential products of genetically altered tobacco include an insecticide, a substance that allows the time-release of flavors in foods and fragrances in perfumes, enzymes to help make paper and reduce cholesterol levels in foods, and other cancer drugs such as interferon and vincristine.
Biosource Genetics used tobacco plants because they are well-understood, easily manipulated and serve as plant researchers' equivalent of the laboratory mouse, Erwin said. The company is considering the same method to genetically alter pepper, potato and tomato plants.
Andrew Kimbrell, lawyer and policy director for the anti-biotechnology Foundation on Economic Trends, said a substance sprayed on tobacco plants to profoundly change what they produce could go to other plants with results unknown.
"We have real concerns about what other plants it might affect," Kimbrell added.
Erwin said his company's method is safe because the spray degrades quickly, creates only a temporary genetic change in the tobacco plants and the changes are not passed from plant to plant or from one generation of plants to the next.
The process "should help make the cigarette habit increasingly expensive as tobacco production is shunted into more constructive end uses," he said.
Because the new genetic command dies with the plant, a farmer would plant tobacco, then decide later in the season whether to sell it for cigarettes or spray it to produce a medicine or industrial chemical.
The Washington-based Tobacco Institute, always quick to fault any study blaming cigarettes for cancer, had no immediate reaction to the prospect tobacco might help fight the disease.