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February 14, 2012

Gene-modified tobacco may give you lung cancer, but will fight off malaria

In what appears to be serious news, Xinhua news agency has reported that scientists at Israel’s Hebrew University of Jerusalem have developed genetically altered tobacco plants which contain artemensin, a natural compound that is increasingly used in drug-resistant malaria therapy.

Artemensin comes from the sweet wormwood plant but due to its small quantities and high price, millions of people cannot get access to it.

Although cigarettes are known to kill millions of people every year, Professor Alexander Vainstein and his research team spliced the wormwood enzymes that carry artemensin’s genetic code into tobacco plants, which then produced the drug.

Vainstein's development is being marketed through the Hebrew University's Yissum Research Development Company.

"The technology provides, for the first time, the opportunity for manufacturing affordable artemensin by using tobacco plants," said Yissum CEO Yaacov Michlin.

Approximately half a billion people suffer from malaria each year in Africa and East Asia, with a child dying every 30 seconds of this disease. Most of them have no means to purchase medicines to treat the illness.

This will present interesting new scenarios for major tobacco growing countries like Malawi and Zimbabwe. Malaria drug manufacturers may now bid for tobacco at the countries’ tobacco auctions alongside cigarette makers. Perhaps this will firm tobacco prices, which in some cases low in Malawi in 2011.. The low prices made many Malawian farmers abandon cultivation of the country’s main cash crop for other crops in 2012. Industry sources say Malawi’s 2012 tobacco harvest may be as low as half of that of 2011 as a result.

Will the artemensin in tobacco be smoke-able in its malaria-fighting properties, or will it have to be extracted? If the former, people now have the new, bizarre ‘lifestyle choice’ of dying from tobacco smoking-induced lung cancer, but at least being cured of their malaria before that. Health professionals who have always thought of tobacco as a killer may now have to wrap their brains to thinking about it as a lifesaver as well.

It’s almost stranger than fiction.

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