Kentucky-grown tobacco could be key to fighting Ebola - CBS 3 Springfield - WSHM

Kentucky-grown tobacco could be key to fighting Ebola

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Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center at the University of Kentucky. (FOX19) Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center at the University of Kentucky. (FOX19)
(FOX19) -

Fears continue to grow over the spread of Ebola as a third American tested positive Tuesday for the virus after spending time in Monrovia.

A company in Owensboro, Kentucky is using a very unique, yet simple technique to fight the virus – a tactic that is grown right in the Bluegrass State.

Tobacco plants.

"You can produce any number of different compounds. It just depends on what you engineer the plant to produce," said Dr. Orlando Chambers, director of the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center at the University of Kentucky.

Those compounds could be lifesavers from something that is usually associated with a bad habit.

"You have to think of it as not a tobacco plant, but as a production system for proteins. It's a very efficient, and a very cheap way to do that. You could produce compounds that may be needed, in this case, they're producing Ebola treatments," said Chambers.

The lab at UK is not involved in the experimental Ebola treatment production, but Chambers is familiar with the process.

"You would grow up plants to about 4 or 5 weeks old, and then you infiltrate them with a solution that puts the genetic information into those plants that you're interested in," Chambers said. The plants then grow for another week before the key protein is extracted for the serum, which is called ZMapp.

Kentucky Bioprocessing, the Owensboro lab producing the drug and growing the tobacco, recently sent a small shipment of ZMapp to Emory University for two American doctors infected with Ebola were being treated.

Both doctors, who were infected while working in West Africa, have been released from the hospital. 

Now the race is on to create more of the serum that had never been clinically tested in humans.

"It's very fast and efficient. For particular kinds of drugs, it's a production system that's cheap and very quick," Chambers tells FOX19 NOW.

Reports say human testing of the experimental drugs will start this week in Maryland. ZMapp was recently tested in 18 monkeys and successfully cured them. 

A spokesperson for Kentucky Bioprocessing told FOX19 NOW today that they're ramping up production so their serum can quickly get through the FDA's approval process, as the drug's usage is still experimental.

The World Health Organization has said usage of the experimental drug is suitable despite never being clinically tested in humans, calling it "ethically sound" even though the drug's power and side effects are unknown.

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