Biopharming Anti-Malarials from Tobacco Plants?

Biopharming Anti-Malarials from Tobacco Plants?

By Minttu Kansikas

Through one mosquito bite, the insect can launch a red blood cell parasite into the bloodstream and cause malaria.

With over 200 million new cases of malaria estimated to occur annually, the importance of readily available treatment is important in combating the potentially life-threatening complications caused by the parasite.  Although both incidences and malaria related deaths have decreased notably, the mortality rates remain to be significantly lowered by the availability of better treatment. (World Malaria Report, 2015).

At this time, the cure to malaria is available, but because of production limitations, it’s better to look at a synthetic biology approach to stop the spread and severity of malaria.

How to Treat Malaria:

The most effective way to treat the most common form of malaria is through artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), which combines artemisinin with different anti-malarials. The main component of all ACT treatments, artemisinin (also known as Qinghao), is a sweet wormwood derived compound whose discovery was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The molecular details of how artemisinin combats the malaria causing parasites is not fully understood, but as a main component of an effective cure for malaria its value and demand in therapeutics is obvious.

The Key Ingredient to Cure Malaria:

Many of the malaria associated deaths are due to lack of treatment. As the amount of artemisinin produced by the sweet wormwood plant is insufficient, several attempts to boost artemisinin production to meet global needs have been reported. Plant breeding technologies to select for the most efficient artemisinin or artemisinin derivative producing plants, artemisinin gene expression modifying technologies, as well as other indirect methods such as fugal co-cultivation methods, have enabled an increase in artemisinin production in the sweet wormwood plant.

A more notable increase in artemisinin production has been demonstrated through synthetic methods, but the complexity and costs of the processes have prevented them from being the answer to the growing need of artemisinin. Meanwhile heterologous production of artemisinin in microorganisms such as yeast, hold great potential for semi-synthetic industrial scale production. (Muangphrop et al. 2016).

Synthetic Biology Approach to Treat Malaria:

Most recently, a promising, inexpensive heterologous artemisinin production method utilizing the tobacco plant has been described by Ralph Bock at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam-Golm, Germany. Using a synthetic biology approach, they introduced the artemisinin synthesis pathway into the tobacco plant cells numerous chloroplasts for large scale artemisinin production (Fuentes et al, 2016). Tobacco plants are already efficiently grown in large masses and their use as a pharmaceutical factory, rather than the source of cigarette tobacco, is not a new concept. For example, tobacco plants have been used for biopharming therapeutic proteins for the treatment of cancers and for boosting vaccine production.  

So, while new anti-malarials and ACT concoctions will fight parasite resistance, the more efficient production of artemisinin should play a central role in eliminating treatment limitations.


Fuentes P, Zhou F, Erban A, Karcher D, Kopka J, Bock R. 2016. A new synthetic biology approach allows transfer of an entire metabolic pathway from a medicinal plant to a biomass crop. Elife. pii: e13664.

Muangphrom P, Seki H, Fukushima EO, Muranaka T. 2016. Artemisinin-based antimalarial research: application of biotechnology to the production of artemisinin, its mode of action, and the mechanism of resistance of Plasmodium parasites. Journal of Natural Medicines, 70: 318-334.

Paddon, CJ & Keasling JD. 2014. Semi-synthetic artemisinin: a model for the use of synthetic biology in pharmaceutical development. Nature Reviews, 12: 355-367.

World Health Organization (2015) World malaria report 2015.

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