Reseachers seeing good in that bad-seed tobacco

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July 04, 1999|By NORRIS WEST

IT SOUNDS too good to be true, and perhaps it is. But medical researchers are buzzing about the possibility that tobacco, that demon weed, can contribute good to society.

Researchers are testing a theory that nicotine could help those who suffer from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and might help improve memory for the rest of us.

Having been affected by a case of Alzheimer's in my family, I'm open to anything that could help patients who suffer from such a debilitating disease. The most difficult thing I have ever witnessed was my bright, energetic mother struggling to remember the most familiar people, places and things in the twilight of her life.

So it was encouraging to learn that the state of Maryland wants to put tobacco to positive biomedical use. Meanwhile, a new unit of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings called Targacept is trying to develop "nicotinic" drugs to relieve pain and improve memory.

Something for both sides

It would be a money-making enterprise, but a win-win situation rather than the one-sided deal the tobacco companies have with their present customers.

This development could help tobacco farmers, who have watched public attitude and the courts take an increasingly hostile stance against the industry that feeds them.

Growers, however, are not popping champagne corks in southern Anne Arundel County, where a handful of tobacco farms remain.

"They're talking about 15 years in the future," said a skeptical Rick Hopkins.

The Lothian man shrugged his shoulders and paused as he stood on the horseshoe-curved driveway that overlooks a church, a cemetery and the neat rows of plants that sprout an abundance of fat, green leaves.

"It's great to come up with a way to use tobacco as a byproduct," Mr. Hopkins said after considering the scenario for a few seconds. "My problem is, how much [tobacco] would you really need for science?"

One side of Mr. Hopkins' family has grown tobacco on this land off Route 422 since the 1920s. His paternal ancestors have done so even longer.

Tobacco occupies nearly a third of the 160 acres on the Lothian farm. The Hopkins family rents another 600 acres for corn, soybeans, wheat, barley and hay.

Tobacco, however, has outperformed the other products, generating steady revenue despite a drought that wilted less hardy and less profitable crops.

Maryland's heritage

Growers are part of the chain that contributes to the health problems tobacco causes, but they deserve sympathy. They have depended on the crop for generations. Tobacco is at the root of Maryland's agricultural heritage, well into its fourth century, and the leafy plant remains the most lucrative crop per acre.

Still, production has dried up in this area, mirroring national trends.

The number of farms growing tobacco in the United States fell from 512,000 in 1954 to 89,706 in 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 1992 to 1997 alone, the decline was 27 percent.

The tobacco industry's settlement with states will bring more than $4.2 billion to Maryland during the next 25 years.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has set aside $8.4 million a year to help Maryland tobacco farmers convert to other crops.

That may be less necessary depending on the success of plans by government and private industry to cultivate medical benefits from the plant.

Targacept's experiment

The Wall Street Journal last week reported that scientists at Targacept, the R. J. Reynolds unit, presented data at a recent Annapolis conference showing that one of its patented chemicals improved short- and long-term memory in rats and had only minimal effects on heart rate, blood pressure and the digestive system.

Researchers are exploring whether nicotinic compounds can treat Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, ulcerative colitis, Tourette's syndrome, schizophrenia, depression, attention deficit disorder and chronic pain.

In another report last week, a scientist told Virginia tobacco researchers that drug companies may be able to use tobacco to make human proteins.

Down on the farm, all of this sounds far-fetched to Mr. Hopkins.

The former college instructor, who returned to the family business seven years ago, knows that theories and experiments with rats do not necessarily translate into success in humans. He is more certain that tobacco farming -- indeed, farming period -- will disappear from the county in 10 or 15 years.

He could be right. But this is one time when even the most severe critics of the tobacco industry have to hope that the research in the works bears fruit.

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. His e-mail address is norris.west@baltsun.com.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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