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Inside Human Health

NC’s Nicotine Past Links to Medical Future

Medicago is one. Avoca and Targacept are others. In fact, there are many modern-day North Carolina business and technology stories spinning from the states's tobacco past.

One of the great ironies of North Carolina’s global reputation as a medical Mecca is that it wouldn’t be so if it weren’t for its roots in tobacco.

Tobacco growing has been a mainstay of the state’s economy for generations. For example, Duke University in Durham, one of the world’s great medical institutions, was made possible largely by tobacco profits.

And today, the leaf continues to take on ever-more important new medical roles for the state.

Boosted by LEAF

Medicago, now a subsidiary of Japan-based Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma, is a world leader with its unique technology for producing vaccines from tobacco plants at its $42 million campus in Durham. The company uses tobacco leaves to produce virus-like particles, which are then extracted, distilled and turned into vaccines.

One of the key reasons Medicago and other major pharmaceutical manufacturers are drawn to North Carolina is the state’s job-ready, highly trained biomanufacturing workforce.

A significant contributor to that skill base has been the Golden LEAF Foundation, distributing tens of millions of tobacco trust fund dollars to the statewide life science expansion — including the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and a $70 million pilot-scale biomanufacturing training center at North Carolina State University.

Spun From Tobacco Research

Targacept, one the state’s many promising young pharmaceutical companies, got its start in 1997 as a Winston-Salem tobacco company spin-out.

Targacept scientists are developing drugs for specific brain-cell regions — neuronal nicotinic receptors — that respond to nicotine and are believed to regulate some important functions of the central nervous system such as Alzheimer's disease, depression, Parkinson’s disease and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Targacept’s science isn’t directly tobacco-related research nowadays, but understanding fundamentals of nicotine is opening new windows of opportunity to the company's researchers. 

Throughout North Carolina, tobacco is turning over a new leaf with its contribution to the state’s bright economic future in the life sciences.