Tobacco plants.
Tobacco plants.

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 lab, 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.

Kenneth Palmer
Kenneth Palmer

“A protein in the university’s own proprietary portfolio and other compounds from industry sources may be useful against SARS-CoV-2,” said Kenneth Palmer, PhD, 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.”

UofL’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) is housed in the CPM and is part of a network of 12 regional and two national labs that were established with support from the NIH to conduct research with infectious agents. The national labs are located at Boston University and at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Regional labs are located at the University of Chicago, Duke University, Boston University and other universities throughout the U.S. The RBL network stands ready in response to public health emergencies and emerging diseases such as the novel coronavirus.

The UofL RBL includes Biosafety Level 3 facilities built to the most exacting federal safety and security standards. The stringently secure facilities protect researchers and the public from exposure to the pathogens being investigated. As part of the RBL network, the UofL RBL is able to respond to needs of researchers, federal agencies and pharmaceutical companies nationwide to conduct research with infectious agents.

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.”

Some of the compounds are already showing promise in the laboratory. While the end of the year seems far off in the current coronavirus climate, it is realistic because “SARS-CoV-2 may be with us for a couple of winter seasons. We’d like to have a product that could be tested if the infection comes back in the cold season like influenza does,” Palmer said.

If it does, Palmer and his team will be ready. “We think we will be able to deliver the drug as a nasal spray and hope we can use it as a preventive, pre-exposure treatment before a vaccine could be developed. This will be important for the public and especially for those who are at risk because of their age or pre-existing health conditions or because they work in health care.”

Photo provided by Pixabay