COVID-19 News

NIH biocontainment lab enlists tobacco to grow COVID-19 compounds

A decade ago, when the National Institutes of Health needed to place a high-security biocontainment laboratory in Kentucky, capable of safely studying dangerous and emerging infectious diseases, they turned to the University of Louisville.

Over the past decade, the laboratory has responded to national emergencies, studying highly infectious diseases such as SARS and others. Today it is being called upon in research efforts focusing on the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease it causes, COVID-19. And in that Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL), supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, researchers are exploring compounds that hold promise as therapeutic agents against the disease and could be grown quickly in host tobacco plants.

That’s right, tobacco.

A strain of the reviled plant that has caused fatal diseases for centuries could be the key to quickly mass-producing a preventive agent, treatment or vaccine for COVID-19.

“A protein in the university’s own proprietary portfolio and other compounds from industry sources may be useful against SARS-CoV-2,” said Dr. Kenneth Palmer, director of UofL’s Center for Predictive Medicine for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases (CPM). “We are currently conducting laboratory research with these compounds that could eventually lead to a therapeutic agent against COVID-19.”
Palmer and his research team received samples of SARS-CoV-2 last month and are researching it only in the highly secure confines of the RBL. Covered head to toe in personal protective equipment to prevent self-infection, the researchers now are testing the therapeutic candidates against the disease in cell cultures.

The UofL compound is known as Q-Griffithsin and is co-owned by the university with the National Cancer Institute and the University of Pittsburgh. It is a potent anti-viral protein that possesses microbicidal capabilities. The other compounds are proprietary to their respective companies.

The research goal is to identify the best potential treatment option that could eventually be tested in humans, first at UofL to gauge its safety and efficacy and then later at the University of Pittsburgh and other clinical trial sites to continue to test its effectiveness. Although there are no guarantees, “we believe we could move into human clinical trials by the end of the year,” Palmer said.

That’s where the tobacco plants come in. A large amount of the ultimate therapeutic will be needed for human trials. Kentucky’s historical cash crop is a perfect host to produce the quantities needed.

“The unique quality about studying these compounds in Kentucky is that we can rapidly scale up production of tobacco plants to produce the large amounts of the agent we will need for human testing,” Palmer said. “As people already know, tobacco grows very well in Kentucky.”

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