Scientists hope the Nicotiana Benthamiana plant, a close relative of tobacco, will become a powerful tool in the fight against COVID-19. Futuris spoke to Giovanni Giuliano, Research Director at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, ENEA. He says the goal is to use the plant as a means to produce large amounts of viral proteins that are necessary to make vaccines and antibodies.
What are the advantages of plants when producing drugs?
"Plants have a great capacity to produce biomass. Tobacco, like wheat or other plants we grow, produce several tons per hectare. If we measure the protein produced per hectare, Nicotiana Benthaniama is able to produce one kilo per hectare of the specific protein that we introduce into it. So you can use this plant to produce cheap molecules that can be used for pharmaceutical interest, or other applications. This is what’s known as a biofactory," says Giuliano.
What's so special about tobacco plants?
"These proteins are very similar to human ones. That means, there are plants that produce humanised proteins. We think innovations in the pharmaceutical industry, namely knowledge of the genome and gene editing techniques, will unlock molecules of interest in this plant,” he adds.