As one of the main ingredients in cigarettes, tobacco certainly gets a bad rap.

But the tobacco plant has been used to develop a new vaccine to thwart the dreaded norovirus – an illness that has been know to wreak havoc on cruise ships sickening passengers (sometimes hundreds of passengers) with diarrhea and vomiting.

The vaccine is unique in its origin as it was made in a tobacco plant using an engineered plant virus. Researchers are using plants in the battle against norovirus, swine flu, bird flu, and other infectious diseases, said Dr. Charles Arntzen, speaking Tuesday at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.

The norovirus, like the flu virus, is constantly changing, which has made creating a vaccine for it challenging for pharmaceutical companies, Arntzen said.

“The recent outbreak of H1N1 influenza virus has once again reminded us of the ability of disease-causing agents to mutate into new and dangerous forms,” he said in a news release.

The norovirus will continue to evolve into new strains, so Arntzen’s team designed a vaccine manufacturing process quick enough to keep up with it and other shape-shifting viruses, he said.

“We think we have a major advantage in using engineered plant viruses to scale-up vaccine manufacture within weeks instead of months,” he said.

While not as dangerous as the flu, norovirus spreads rapidly and can sicken people with diarrhea and vomiting for up to three days.

“It essentially closes down wings of hospitals, schools, day care centers and homes for the elderly. In the case of the military, it can shut down an entire ship and delay military operations while there is a cleanup in process. Because the disease spreads so rapidly, the major economic consequences are caused by the disruption of normal daily life and commerce,” Arntzen said.

To battle each new strain of the norovirus and to keep full resistance to older strains, Arntzen says the vaccine could be administered as a booster every 12 to 18 months. After successful experiments in mice, his team is developing a nasal delivery system for the virus-like particles. Arntzen expects to start clinical trials in late 2009 or early 2010.