Tobacco plants to fight Ebola, nerve gas exposure


Tobacco plants are being used to create an Ebola vaccine based on technology invented in Ontario.

A Guelph-based company is using its low-cost drug manufacturing technology based on tobacco plants to develop an Ebola treatment as well as a nerve gas antidote.

University of Guelph spin-off PlantForm is evaluating the use of its vivoXPRESS™ technology in the development of a treatment for the Ebola Sudan strain of the disease.

The current outbreak in Africa is the Ebola Zaire strain, which differs genetically from Ebola Sudan, the strain responsible for most of the other Ebola outbreaks in recent years.

This means the drugs and vaccines being developed for Ebola Zaire can’t be used on other Ebola strains like Sudan.

Don Stewart Pres CEO Plantform

Plantform President & CEO Don Stewart

“There’s a very real medical need for treatments for Ebola Sudan, and we’re collaborating with the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) on this project,” explains Don Stewart, President and CEO of PlantForm.

The vivoXPRESS™ system uses genetically modified tobacco plants to ‘grow’ biopharmaceuticals in fully contained greenhouse environments, while significantly lowering the cost of goods compared to industry standard fermentation systems for biopharmaceutical production.

PlantForm launched its Ebola project last fall with some funding provided by the National Research Council Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), and is now working to produce three drug candidates at its Guelph facility to send to USAMARIID for testing.

If successful, the next stage would be a further round of testing before starting human clinical trials.

Plantform is now working to produce three drug candidates at its Guelph facility to send to USAMARIID for testing.

“We could be doing clinical trials in three years, but it does depend on the availability of funding,” says Stewart. “It’s a bit of a limited market so we would be looking to the Canadian and U.S. governments for funding.”

PlantForm is also involved in the development of an antidote to sarin, a common, man-made chemical weapon known as a nerve agent. Sarin was originally developed as a pesticide in Germany in 1938, and was used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in the 1990s.

Plants growing in a greenhouse

Plantform’s tobacco plants are grown in greenhouses.

Butyrylcholinesterase (BuChE) is an enzyme that has been developed as a bioscavenger to treat people already exposed to nerve agents, or protect those going into environments where they may encounter exposure.

“BuChE is currently produced from blood plasma, and we’re using vivoXPRESS™ to produce this enzyme in plants as a potential lower-cost alternative,” explains Stewart.

They’re also using genetic engineering to improve the drug’s performance, which will mean lower required treatment doses and reduced manufacturing costs, he adds.

Last December, PlantForm was awarded a Canadian government contract to produce BuChE, which will be used primarily for emergency response purposes.

In 2013, PlantForm successfully completed a contract with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for research and development of recombinant BuChE production in plants.

PlantForm also uses its vivoXPRESS™ technology in a plant-produced version of the breast cancer drug Herceptin®, as well as biosimilar versions of two additional biologic cancer drugs, and innovator antibodies for HIV/AIDS.

More information about PlantForm is available at