According to findings published ahead of print on July 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a new study suggests that genetically modified rice could be the key to HIV prevention. The team of scientists stumbled upon a new way to neutralize HIV cells.
Using a genetically modified strain of rice, investigators discovered a way to produce HIV-neutralizing proteins. The team was composed of scientists from the United States, United Kingdom and Spain. Researchers from the University of Lleida, Spain, developed the rice in collaboration with the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute in Barcelona.
The modified rice contains three functional HIV-neutralizing proteins, the antibody 2G12 and the lectins griffithsin and cyanovirin-N. The two sugar-binding proteins and antibody bond to HIV cells, preventing them from interacting with human cells.
“Our paper provides an approach for the durable deployment of anti-HIV agents in the developing world,” researchers wrote. “We developed a transgenic rice line expressing three microbicidal proteins (the HIV-neutralizing antibody 2G12 and the lectins griffithsin and cyanovirin-N). Simultaneous expression in the same plant allows the crude seed extract to be used directly as a topical microbicide cocktail, avoiding the costs of multiple downstream processes. This groundbreaking strategy is realistically the only way that microbicidal cocktails can be manufactured at a cost low enough for the developing world, where HIV prophylaxis is most in demand.”
Furthermore, the rice can be infused into a topical cream. Once the rice plants are mature, the seeds can be ground and processed into a paste-like substance. The paste then can be processed into a topical cream, allowing the proteins to enter the body transdermally.
With no cure or vaccine currently available, HIV-positive individuals are consigned to a daily pill, and HIV-negative individuals are consigned to a daily PrEP pill, if they want to lower their chances of ever being exposed to the virus.
Why is this approach needed? Its potentially low cost. “Plants offer an inexpensive and scalable alternative manufacturing platform that can produce multiple components in a single plant,” researchers wrote, “which is important because multiple components are required to avoid the rapid emergence of HIV-1 strains resistant to single microbicides.”
In developing countries, a cheaper means of producing an preventative HIV drug could change the game. Christou said the costs would be “very high.” Recent restrictions on genetically modified organisms imposed by the Court of Justice of the European Union made it more difficult to get away with that type of development.
Paul Christou told Labiotech.Eu that the proteins can be manufactured on a large scale for a minimal cost. One of the reasons it’s so cheap is that all “three molecules can be produced in one plant, thus reducing the costs even further.”
This new approach could provide a new avenue towards the development of inexpensive drugs, but the next hurdle includes regulatory costs. Genome editing, in recent years, has become less popular in the public eye. Despite the challenges ahead, transgenic rice could provide a new means of preventing HIV. It’s some of the poorest areas that are in the greatest need of inexpensive HIV prevention medicine.