One of the World’s Most Hated Plants Is Becoming a Public Health Rock Star
The recent Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has refocused attention on the vaccine and treatment prospects for the highly contagious and deadly disease. As of late May, more than 7,500 doses of an experimental vaccine made by Merck Pharmaceuticals had been shipped to the beleaguered African nation, according to a World Health Organization press release.
Research was focused on the production of antibodies and vaccines in a novel manufacturing system: the tobacco plant.
Meanwhile, Ebola treatments were also sent. One of these, ZMapp, was successfully used to treat two American missionaries in Liberia in 2014. Charles Arntzen, who helped develop the treatment, calls that moment the highlight of his career: "It started in a lab as a fanciful idea that needed to be validated. In ten years, it was being used and people went from almost dead to almost recovered."
His initial research was focused on the production of antibodies and vaccines in a novel manufacturing system. That system was the tobacco plant—not the smoking variety, or nicotiana tabacum. But rather, a distant cousin called nicotiana benthamiana, which is native to Australia, where it grows abundantly.
ZMapp is made from the plant, as are other therapeutics and vaccines. Indeed, the once-maligned plant family has turned its image upside down in the public health world, now holding promise to prevent and treat many conditions.
Cheap, easy and plentiful
Research on the tobacco plant's medicinal potential goes back a few decades. In the early 1990s, research on plants as vaccine production platforms was just beginning. "We wanted to make a lower-cost vaccine manufacturing system to be used in developing countries to broaden our manufacturing base in the developing world," said Arntzen, who is the founding director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at Arizona State University. "There was and still is a shortage of vaccines in the poorest countries."
"I've got a list of about fifty vaccines that should be made in tobacco."
Initially, research focused on food plants: bananas, tomatoes, and potatoes. While these efforts were successful, they were stymied by the "anti-GMO food establishment," Arntzen said. "I didn't want to spend my time fighting." So, they switched to the tobacco plant.
"I've got a list of about fifty vaccines that should be made in tobacco," said Denis Murphy, professor of biotechnology at the University of South Wales. "We know a lot about how to express genes in tobacco and get it made."
Unlike egg-based vaccines, which require a clean, sterile laboratory to make, and can therefore be an expensive process, Murphy said, tobacco-based vaccines are relatively cheap to make. The process is simple: Three weeks after being planted, the plants are dipped into a liquid containing proteins from the given virus. The plants grow the proteins for another week and then are harvested and chopped up. The green liquid that results is the vaccine, which is purified and then bottled up in precise doses.
"The tobacco plant doesn't seem to mind making all this foreign protein," Murphy added. "The plants will stay alive and look okay, and they will be full of vaccine protein. If you did this with an animal, you'd probably kill it."
Still, there are certain challenges to producing tobacco-based vaccines, particularly in the developing world, said Murphy, who is also a biotech consultant for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.
"The purification process of the vaccine protein from leaves is still something for which you need a specialized lab. You couldn't have that in the Congo," he said. Security is another concern. "Someone could steal the plant and grow it themselves as a pirate version."
Even birds could be the culprit for tobacco plant theft. "What if a bird came and started eating the leaves? You might want netting or greenhouse growing. That can be much more problematic in a developing country."
While the ZMapp treatment for Ebola is produced from tobacco, efforts to develop a vaccine this way have not proved fruitful so far. (Merck's Ebola vaccine is made from livestock.) "Our tobacco-based vaccine would require three doses for a full effect, while the vaccine made by Merck may only require a single dose," Arntzen said. "Having to give three doses, over about a month, makes the tobacco-made vaccine much more cumbersome and expensive to deliver." Yet a tobacco-derived vaccine for another newsworthy illness is in the works.
On the frontier of a flu vaccine
Quebec City-based biopharmaceutical company Medicago is using a novel technique to make a flu vaccine with tobacco. This offers several advantages over the current method of developing the vaccine from eggs.
First of all, the production is quicker: five to six weeks, versus four to six months, which means that researchers can wait to identify the circulating flu strain for the upcoming season, rather than guess and risk being wrong.
Also, with tobacco, developers can use something called virus-like particles, instead of the actual flu virus.
"We hope to be on the market by the 2020/21 flu season."
"They have the structure of the flu virus, but not its full genetic code, so the virus doesn't replicate," said Anne Shiraishi, Medicago's communications manager. That's a big deal because the flu is a rapidly mutating virus, and traditional egg-based vaccines encourage those mutations – which wind up making the vaccines less effective.
This problem happens because the flu virus mutates a key protein to better attach to receptors in bird cells, but in humans, this mutation won't trigger an effective immune response, according to a Medicago fact sheet. That's why some people who have been vaccinated still get the flu. Indeed, the 2017 flu season had the lowest vaccine effectiveness record ever for H3N2 at 10 percent in the Southern Hemisphere, and 0 percent effective in the EU and UK in people over age 65. At least theoretically, their tobacco-derived flu vaccine could be far more successful, since no such mutations occur with the virus-like particles.
Last year, Medicago, which is 40 percent owned by cigarette company Philip Morris, began a phase 3 trial of the flu vaccine with 10,000 subjects in five countries: half are getting the vaccine, and half are getting a placebo. "We hope to announce really good results this fall," Shiraishi said. "We hope to be on the market by the 2020/21 flu season."
They're also preparing phase I trials for vaccines for the rotavirus and norovirus, two intractable gastro-intestinal viruses. They hope to roll those trials out in the next year or two.
Meanwhile, other research on antibodies is in their pipeline—all of it using tobacco, Shiraishi said. "We've taken something bad for public health and made it our mini factories."
This is part 2 of a three part series on a new generation of doctors leading the charge to make the health care industry more sustainable - for the benefit of their patients and the planet. Read part 1 here.
After graduating from her studies as an engineer, Nora Stroetzel ticked off the top item on her bucket list and traveled the world for a year. She loved remote places like the Indonesian rain forest she reached only by hiking for several days on foot, mountain villages in the Himalayas, and diving at reefs that were only accessible by local fishing boats.
“But no matter how far from civilization I ventured, one thing was already there: plastic,” Stroetzel says. “Plastic that would stay there for centuries, on 12,000 foot peaks and on beaches several hundred miles from the nearest city.” She saw “wild orangutans that could be lured by rustling plastic and hermit crabs that used plastic lids as dwellings instead of shells.”
While traveling she started volunteering for beach cleanups and helped build a recycling station in Indonesia. But the pivotal moment for her came after she returned to her hometown Kiel in Germany. “At the dentist, they gave me a plastic cup to rinse my mouth. I used it for maybe ten seconds before it was tossed out,” Stroetzel says. “That made me really angry.”
She decided to research alternatives for plastic in the medical sector and learned that cups could be reused and easily disinfected. All dentists routinely disinfect their tools anyway and, Stroetzel reasoned, it wouldn’t be too hard to extend that practice to cups.
It's a good example for how often plastic is used unnecessarily in medical practice, she says. The health care sector is the fifth biggest source of pollution and trash in industrialized countries. In the U.S., hospitals generate an estimated 6,000 tons of waste per day, including an average of 400 grams of plastic per patient per day, and this sector produces 8.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
“Sustainable alternatives exist,” Stroetzel says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
When Stroetzel spoke with medical staff in Germany, she found they were often frustrated by all of this waste, especially as they took care to avoid single-use plastic at home. Doctors in other countries share this frustration. In a recent poll, nine out of ten doctors in Germany said they’re aware of the urgency to find sustainable solutions in the health industry but don’t know how to achieve this goal.
After a year of researching more sustainable alternatives, Stroetzel founded a social enterprise startup called POP, short for Practice Without Plastic, together with IT expert Nicolai Niethe, to offer well-researched solutions. “Sustainable alternatives exist,” she says, “but you have to painstakingly look for them; they are often not offered by the big manufacturers, and all of this takes way too much time [that] medical staff simply does not have during their hectic days.”
In addition to reusable dentist cups, other good options for the heath care sector include washable N95 face masks and gloves made from nitrile, which waste less water and energy in their production. But Stroetzel admits that truly making a medical facility more sustainable is a complex task. “This includes negotiating with manufacturers who often package medical materials in double and triple layers of extra plastic.”
While initiatives such as Stroetzel’s provide much needed information, other experts reason that a wholesale rethinking of healthcare is needed. Voluntary action won’t be enough, and government should set the right example. Kari Nadeau, a Stanford physician who has spent 30 years researching the effects of environmental pollution on the immune system, and Kenneth Kizer, the former undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, wrote in JAMA last year that the medical industry and federal agencies that provide health care should be required to measure and make public their carbon footprints. “Government health systems do not disclose these data (and very rarely do private health care organizations), unlike more than 90% of the Standard & Poor’s top 500 companies and many nongovernment entities," they explained. "This could constitute a substantial step toward better equipping health professionals to confront climate change and other planetary health problems.”
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S.
Kizer and Nadeau look to the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), which created a Sustainable Development Unit in 2008 and began that year to conduct assessments of the NHS’s carbon footprint. The NHS also identified its biggest culprits: Of the 2019 footprint, with emissions totaling 25 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent, 62 percent came from the supply chain, 24 percent from the direct delivery of care, 10 percent from staff commute and patient and visitor travel, and 4 percent from private health and care services commissioned by the NHS. From 1990 to 2019, the NHS has reduced its emission of carbon dioxide equivalents by 26 percent, mostly due to the switch to renewable energy for heat and power. Meanwhile, the NHS has encouraged health clinics in the U.K. to install wind generators or photovoltaics that convert light to electricity -- relatively quick ways to decarbonize buildings in the health sector.
Compared to the U.K., the U.S. healthcare industry lags behind in terms of measuring and managing its carbon footprint, and hospitals are the second highest energy user of any sector in the U.S. “We are already seeing patients with symptoms from climate change, such as worsened respiratory symptoms from increased wildfires and poor air quality in California,” write Thomas B. Newman, a pediatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, and UCSF clinical research coordinator Daisy Valdivieso. “Because of the enormous health threat posed by climate change, health professionals should mobilize support for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.” They believe “the most direct place to start is to approach the low-lying fruit: reducing healthcare waste and overuse.”
In addition to resulting in waste, the plastic in hospitals ultimately harms patients, who may be even more vulnerable to the effects due to their health conditions. Microplastics have been detected in most humans, and on average, a human ingests five grams of microplastic per week. Newman and Valdivieso refer to the American Board of Internal Medicine's Choosing Wisely program as one of many initiatives that identify and publicize options for “safely doing less” as a strategy to reduce unnecessary healthcare practices, and in turn, reduce cost, resource use, and ultimately reduce medical harm.
A few U.S. clinics are pioneers in transitioning to clean energy sources. In Wisconsin, the nonprofit Gundersen Health network became the first hospital to cut its reliance on petroleum by switching to locally produced green energy in 2015, and it saved $1.2 million per year in the process. Kaiser Permanente eliminated its 800,000 ton carbon footprint through energy efficiency and purchasing carbon offsets, reaching a balance between carbon emissions and removing carbon from the atmosphere in 2020, the first U.S. health system to do so.
Cleveland Clinic has pledged to join Kaiser in becoming carbon neutral by 2027. Realizing that 80 percent of its 2008 carbon emissions came from electricity consumption, the Clinic started switching to renewable energy and installing solar panels, and it has invested in researching recyclable products and packaging. The Clinic’s sustainability report outlines several strategies for producing less waste, such as reusing cases for sterilizing instruments, cutting back on materials that can’t be recycled, and putting pressure on vendors to reduce product packaging.
The Charité Berlin, Europe’s biggest university hospital, has also announced its goal to become carbon neutral. Its sustainability managers have begun to identify the biggest carbon culprits in its operations. “We’ve already reduced CO2 emissions by 21 percent since 2016,” says Simon Batt-Nauerz, the director of infrastructure and sustainability.
The hospital still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, as much as a city with 10,000 residents, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees, who can get their bikes repaired for free in one of the Charité-operated bike workshops. Another program targets doctors’ and nurses’ scrubs, which cause more than 200 tons of CO2 during manufacturing and cleaning. The staff is currently testing lighter, more sustainable scrubs made from recycled cellulose that is grown regionally and requires 80 percent less land use and 30 percent less water.
The Charité hospital in Berlin still emits 100,000 tons of CO2 every year, but it’s making progress through ride share and bicycle programs for its staff of 20,000 employees.
Anesthesiologist Susanne Koch spearheads sustainability efforts in anesthesiology at the Charité. She says that up to a third of hospital waste comes from surgery rooms. To reduce medical waste, she recommends what she calls the 5 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rethink, Research. “In medicine, people don’t question the use of plastic because of safety concerns,” she says. “Nobody wants to be sued because something is reused. However, it is possible to reduce plastic and other materials safely.”
For instance, she says, typical surgery kits are single-use and contain more supplies than are actually needed, and the entire kit is routinely thrown out after the surgery. “Up to 20 percent of materials in a surgery room aren’t used but will be discarded,” Koch says. One solution could be smaller kits, she explains, and another would be to recycle the plastic. Another example is breathing tubes. “When they became scarce during the pandemic, studies showed that they can be used seven days instead of 24 hours without increased bacteria load when we change the filters regularly,” Koch says, and wonders, “What else can we reuse?”
In the Netherlands, TU Delft researchers Tim Horeman and Bart van Straten designed a method to melt down the blue polypropylene wrapping paper that keeps medical instruments sterile, so that the material can be turned it into new medical devices. Currently, more than a million kilos of the blue paper are used in Dutch hospitals every year. A growing number of Dutch hospitals are adopting this approach.
Another common practice that’s ripe for improvement is the use of a certain plastic, called PVC, in hospital equipment such as blood bags, tubes and masks. Because of its toxic components, PVC is almost never recycled in the U.S., but University of Michigan researchers Danielle Fagnani and Anne McNeil have discovered a chemical process that can break it down into material that could be incorporated back into production. This could be a step toward a circular economy “that accounts for resource inputs and emissions throughout a product’s life cycle, including extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, transport, use and reuse, and disposal,” as medical experts have proposed. “It’s a failure of humanity to have created these amazing materials which have improved our lives in many ways, but at the same time to be so shortsighted that we didn’t think about what to do with the waste,” McNeil said in a press release.
Susanne Koch puts it more succinctly: “What’s the point if we save patients while killing the planet?”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI