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August 20, 2009

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Tobacco may hold key to stomach virus cure

TOBACCO plants might yield a cheap and easy-to-administer vaccine against a pesky stomach virus called norovirus, according to US researchers.

They found a way to make tobacco produce a protein that can be used to make a nasal vaccine against norovirus, which causes diarrhea and vomiting, especially on cruise ships, in restaurants, schools and on military bases.

"Under appropriate medical care it is not life-threatening. It is just very, very inconvenient," Charles Arntzen, a plant biologist at Arizona State University, told a meeting of the American Chemical Society on Tuesday.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 23 million cases a year of acute gastroenteritis - stomach and intestinal upset - are due to norovirus, also known as Norwalk virus.

Arntzen and colleagues used a genetically engineered plant virus called the tobacco mosaic virus to start their vaccine.

"We force it to make the protein which is the vaccine against norovirus," Arntzen told the news conference. "We call them nanoparticle vaccines because the protein we produce in our tobacco plant self-assembles into a little round ball."

The immune system recognizes this ball, called a virus-like particle or a capsid, as if it were a virus and attacks it, Arntzen said. "It is empty. It cannot cause disease," he said.

Tests have suggested the vaccine would work better in the nose than taken orally, probably because immune cells in the nasal passages are more inclined to take up the vaccine.

Arntzen said his team has US National Institutes of Health support for a clinical trial in people.

Last year, a team at Stanford University reported it used tobacco to make a so-called therapeutic vaccine to treat a type of blood cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma.


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