Researchers root out relief in tobacco plants

Crystal Mackay // Special to Western NewsSchulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Dr. Tony Jevnikar and Biology professor Shengwu Ma have discovered that tobacco plants can be used to produce large quantitates of Interleukin 37 – or IL-37 – a naturally occurring protein in the human kidney.

The roots of an effective and affordable way to combat Type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia and arthritis might be found by using high-yield plants, like tobacco and potatoes, according to work by Western and Lawson Health Research Institute.

Researchers have discovered that tobacco plants can be used to produce large quantitates of Interleukin 37 – or IL-37 – a naturally occurring protein in the human kidney. Although made by the body only in small quantities, the protein has powerful anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressing properties, providing potential for treating inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.

While showing promise in animal models, IL-37’s clinical use has been limited due to its cost. Currently, it can be made in very small amounts using the bacteria E. coli, but that is an expensive process.

“The tobacco plants offer the potential to produce pharmaceuticals in a way that is much more affordable than current methods,” said Biology professor Shengwu Ma, a Lawson scientist. “Tobacco is high-yield. We can temporarily transform the plant so we can begin making the protein of interest within two weeks.”

The protein can be extracted and quantified from the plant cells in a way that maintains its function. It can be translated to other plants, like potatoes. This is first time researchers have shown that a functional human protein can be produced in plant cells.

Special to Western NewsThe tobacco plants offer the potential to produce pharmaceuticals in a way that is much more affordable than current methods. Tobacco is high-yield. Researchers can temporarily transform the plant to begin making the protein of interest within two weeks.

As a “master regulator of inflammation in the body,” IL-37 has proven effective in treating a whole host of diseases, explained Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Dr. Tony Jevnikar.

While the human kidney produces IL-37, it is not nearly enough to get us out of an inflammation injury.

Jevnikar, a Lawson scientist, is investigating the effect that IL-37 has for preventing organ injury during transplantation. When an organ is removed for transplantation and then transferred to a recipient, inflammation occurs when the blood flow is restored to the organ. He and his team believe IL-37 provides a way to prevent that injury.

“I hope that this work will impact a change in how people view plants and hopefully this approach will be a way to provide treatments to patients that are effective and affordable,” Jevnikar said.

The study, Production of functional human interleukin 37 using plants, was published in the March 2019 edition of the journal Plant Cell Reports.