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Plant used for cigarettes may yield West Nile virus treatment

 by Claudia Koerner
 published on Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Tobacco plants may have a reputation for causing cancer, but a team of researchers at ASU's Polytechnic campus and Tempe's Biodesign Institute are putting them to use to develop a treatment for the West Nile virus.

Qiang "Shawn" Chen, an applied biological sciences professor who is leading the research team, and his collaborators created a potential drug about two years ago to treat the mosquito-transmitted disease that attacks a person's central nervous system.

So far there is no approved drug for either a vaccine or a treatment, Chen said.

Right now, the team is developing a way to create the drug prototype more efficiently and in a way that can be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Chen said. Moving toward a practical application is an important part of the research, Chen said.

The funding for the study comes from a four-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes for Allergy and Infectious Disease, according to ASU media.

Though serious cases of West Nile are relatively rare, Bev McCoy of Polytechnic's Student Health Center said any new treatment would be groundbreaking.

In 2004, McCoy said there were 391 cases of West Nile virus that resulted in 16 deaths, mostly among people older than 50.

Since then, reported cases have gone down, with only 93 infections and no deaths last year, McCoy said.

By injecting the antibody genes into tobacco plant DNA, Chen said tobacco cells produce the antibody, along with tobacco proteins.

"We use the tobacco plants as a factory to produce these antibody drugs," Chen said.

The process is cheap and simple, Chen said, requiring only 10 days to harvest the antibodies from tobacco leaves.

And tobacco as a well-researched plant with an easily manipulated structure is one of the easiest plants for researchers to work with at a genetic level, Chen said.

Another aspect of the research includes working on making the drug more effective.

Because West Nile attacks the central nervous system, drugs only have a period of five days to fight the virus before it crosses the brain's protective membrane, Chen said.

This would create a window of treatment longer than five days after infection, Chen said.

To work toward an efficient, FDA approved treatment, Chen said the ASU team brings together faculty expertise in an advanced laboratory setting.

"This virus is not an easy virus to work with," Chen said.

Though the West Nile project is complex, several undergraduate researchers are involved.

Applied biological sciences senior Erin Meehan has been working on the project for about a year and a half and said the work is "fascinating."

Meehan said the project's emphasis on molecular biology and benefiting society interested her from the beginning.

"Dr. Chen is very inspiring," Meehan said. "He inspires me to learn and achieve at a higher level."

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