A misused gift that Native cultures of Turtle Island shared centuries ago with the world may finally be recognized for what tradition has always known it was.
Tobacco is rising again as medicine.
And it is being enlisted to combat some of the most fearful ailments on the world’s health horizon.
Much in the recent news is the experimental drug ZMapp, the only drug currently available to fight Ebola. But tobacco may also be a key in creating a gel that may prevent HIV transmission, in growing vaccines against cholera or cervical cancer and even in mass-producing human collagen to repair bones and joints. These are just a few examples of the research underway around the world using tobacco.
Tobacco has always been considered a medicine in traditional culture. A gift of the Creator, it has been used prayers or as an appropriate “thank you” to elders or others for knowledge or skills shared.
Courtesy University of Louisville
Kenneth Palmer, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, heads the Owensboro Cancer Research program using tobacco to produce vaccines.
“Tobacco, in its pure form, is medicinal. It is one of the four sacred medicines,” said Derek J. Bailey, former chairman for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and director of the National Native Network and its Keep It Sacred program. The National Native Network helps people “look at this medicine in a different way … keeping it, using it in that sacred way, not in the commercial tobacco form,” Bailey said.
The group not only encourages a return to traditional use of tobacco, but also to using only unaltered tobacco or similar traditional mixtures, such as the Algonquin knick-knick. Bailey said that gifting elders or the drums at powwows with commercially produced tobacco may not send the right message. “It’s out of that bag – it’s still that substance that is diluted with chemicals.”
Bailey sees good potentials, though, for the new research using tobacco plants, even genetically altered, for medicines, as long as unmodified species remain protected for spiritual uses. “It seems fitting to me. These are very important to our overall public health. For all human health and well-being. … That is a ripple effect for generations to come.”
The potential uses and global reach for tobacco in medicines are impressive. Tobacco is one plant researched by biopharmaceutical companies around the world in biopharming – the use of genetic engineering techniques on plants to produce pharmaceuticals.
The Ebola drug ZMapp is now the most in the news. The drug itself, termed a “monoclonal antibody cocktail” when announced in 2012 by its creators, the San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical, does not use tobacco in the drug itself, but tobacco is the main source for rapid production of the antibody.
“This new development process significantly decreases the amount of time required for production, increases the quantity of antibody produced and slashes the cost of manufacturing,” a 2012 Mapp press release quoted Barry Bratcher, chief operating officer of Kentucky BioProcessing, which partners with Mapp.
The University of Louisville, Kentucky’s Owensboro Cancer Research Program under Kenneth Palmer is a leader in researching medical uses for tobacco and its relative, nicotiana benthamiana. Palmer’s team, for instance, has had some success with a microbicide, based on a protein in red algae, that inhibits transmission of the HIV virus during intercourse. Tobacco is used to create a gel with the protein. The process, according to the university, involves “inserting genes into a virus that grows in the plants or directly into the tobacco genome. The leaves of the plants are then harvested, processed and purified to derive a key vaccine ingredient.”
More traditional methods of producing vaccines might involve using something like fertilized eggs for incubation.
A CNN story by Madeleine Stix reported that the egg-based process for making a flu vaccine, for example, “can cost around $150 million each year, using 600,000 eggs each day. Tobacco plants can produce antibodies in much less time for a fraction of the cost, advocates say.”
Another benefit of tobacco for biopharming is that it is not a food crop. Experiments have and do use crops such as corn, carrots or tomatoes, but with intense concern from environmental activists and food industry groups.
Problems have arisen with food crops. In 2002, ProdiGene, a Texas-based biopharmaceutical company was fined $3 million after two incidents involving contamination of food – soybeans in Nebraska and corn in Iowa. In the Nebraska case, soybeans were planted on a plot used the year before to grow corn altered for a vaccine. When corn sprouted alongside the soybeans, it was harvested and eventually ended up among 500,000 bushels of soybeans, all of which had to be destroyed. In Iowa, the altered corn may have cross-pollinated a nearby food crop of corn, which also had to be destroyed. The multimillion-dollar fine included cost of incinerating the crops, according to the New York Times. With tobacco, fear of crosspollination to a food crop is reduced.
As to the efficacy of ZMapp against Ebola, that has not yet been determined. While it was used on two U.S. health workers who recovered, it has also been used in the heart of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa with mixed results. However, the journal Naturereported in August that a study using rhesus macaques infected with Ebola all recovered using ZMapp. No drugs using tobacco have been approved for general use in the United States.
What attention to ZMapp and its potential definitely will do, according to Palmer, is to encourage biopharming.
“Unfortunate as it is, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a huge leg up for the field,” Palmer is quoted in the CNN story. “I think it will only help validate the technology as a viable option.”
For Native people, the question going forward will be whether this new use, more cognitive of tobacco as a medicine, will remain honorable to its sacred nature.
As Ojibwe elder and healer Ron Geyshick cautioned in the book, Te Bwe Win (Truth): “Never put out tobacco without a prayer, as tobacco is our most sacred way of communicating with the spirits.”
An appeal to tradition is part of an anti-smoking campaign by QuitPlan on a billboard near the Fond du Lac Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota.