WASHINGTON – With the number of smokers declining and the tobacco industry in disrepute, tobacco farmers are facing a huge threat to their livelihood. But now, a new product in the experimental stages could bring hope for growers of the South's oldest cash crop.
Carole Cramer, a scientist at Crop Tech, Inc., has developed a technique for infusing the hearty tobacco plant with small bits of human DNA. The result: transgenic tobacco, a plant that produces human proteins that can be used to manufacture a number of cutting-edge, life-saving drugs.
"We could be looking at a real revolution, both for the pharmaceutical industry and for the agricultural industry. That's seriously cool," Cramer said.
Right now, the process is a combination of gee-whiz science and low-tech ingenuity. The plants start as a small, green chip, but they grow quickly. In the field, they are grown, cut, and allowed to grow back four times in one season.
The human proteins are not released until the plant is sliced. For now, crop technicians use a pasta maker to do that. The shredded plant is then ground into a paste and the proteins are extracted and purified.
The combination of laboratory magic and old-fashioned farming could lead to a new class of anti-cancer drugs — one to fight debilitating metabolic disorders like Gaucher's disease, another agent to break up blood clots. The possibilities are limitless, because the DNA of the tobacco plant is easily manipulated in the lab.
The changes could benefit farmers in Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee, the nation's largest tobacco-growing states.
Don Wright is one of those farmers, a fourth-generation Virginia tobacco grower who has agreed to grow one of the first large strands of this high-tech tobacco. Wright said he thinks transgenic tobacco could eventually be a godsend for struggling tobacco farmers — if they are willing to embrace new ideas.
"Change is inevitable, and one must be willing to change with the times," Wright said.
It won't happen overnight, but by scientific standards it will happen fairly quickly. Within three to five years, transgenic tobacco plants could be transformed into life-saving drugs.
Fox News' Sharon Kehnemui contributed to this report.