Researchers from the University of Louisville are developing a gel made with tobacco plants injected with a protein that prevents the spread of HIV infection, according to UofL Today. Kenneth Palmer, Ph.D., director of the Owensboro Cancer Research Program at the University of Louisiana, is leading the team of researchers, thanks to a five-year $14.7 million grant from The National Institute of Health.
The research team will work with a protein called Griffithsin (GRFT), a carbohydrate combining protein that is found in red algae. GRFT has been shown to act against HIV in laboratory work. The algae-based product surrounds the sugars around HIV cells and prevents those cells from getting in contact with uninfected cells. So Palmer and his team will work towards developing a gel with those components that can be used during sex.
James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, announced the research project by saying, “Globally, more than 34 million people are HIV positive. The development of a low-cost method to prevent transmission of HIV certainly is something that is desperately needed and the use of tobacco plants as a method of carrying the vaccine appears to be key in the process.”
Researchers will inject a copy of the protein into a tobacco mosaic virus that will carry the protein into the tobacco leaves. Then the leaves will be harvested after 12 days to extract the mass-produced protein to develop it into the vaccine gel.
“Our goal is to optimize the delivery system of the protective agent, which in this case is a gel, and determine its safety and estimates of its efficacy, leading to a first-in-humans clinical trial,” Palmer reported.
Palmer will be working with a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, the Magee-Women’s Research Institute in Pittsburgh, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Korolinska Institutet in Stockholm, the University of Manitoba, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Kentucky Bioprocessing Inc. and Intrucept Biomedicine LLC in Owensboro.
When a gel would hit pharmacies or drug store shelves is a long way off, even if tests well in clinical trials. There will be three significant phases to the overall project: one that invlolves manufacturing the ingredient, and producing the gel product for use; then collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using animal models to ensure that the vaccine is safe and actually works; and the last step is a clinical trial for the Food and Drug Administration using human test subjects.