Two announcements made on two consecutive days last week vividly showed that whether a thing is helpful or harmful often depends on how we use it. The announcements’ subject? Tobacco.
Last Wednesday, the US Food and Drug Administration opened its Center for Tobacco Products. Lawrence Deyton, a public-health expert, administrative leader, scientist, and clinician, was named the Center’s first director. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, Deyton said in an FDA statement.
The Center’s goals will be to reduce the number of deaths that the products cause annually and to help implement the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. Under the Act, FDA is required to set standards for tobacco products, review premarket applications for new and modified-risk tobacco products, and establish and enforce advertising restrictions for the products.
The day before FDA opened its new Center, the American Chemical Society issued a press release that described how scientists used tobacco plants to create a vaccine for “the second most common viral infection in the United States.” The infection is novovirus, aka “cruise-ship virus.” It causes diarrhea and vomiting and incapacitates its victims for several days. Novovirus spreads rapidly and can force wings of hospitals, schools, and homes for the elderly to close down.
A research team reengineered plant viruses to produce high levels of specially designed nanoparticles in tobacco plants. The nanoparticles were about the same size as the norovirus, about 25 nm in diameter, but consisted only of the outer surface protein, which is what the human immune system recognizes. Although the nanoparticles didn’t contain the novovirus’s infectious material, they did stimulate a strong immune response to fight off an infection.
Although I understand that most things have both good and bad qualities, the idea that tobacco plants could produce vaccines caught me by surprise. It just shows that one must keep an open mind, especially when trying to solve problems. And it reminded me of Hamlet’s observation: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”