East Malling Research aids HIV research

Medical scientists on a quest to provide low cost-drugs to restrict the spread of HIV across the world are working with plant specialists at East Malling Research (EMR) in Kent to find a solution.

The horticultural researchers are now successfully growing genetically modifiedtobacco plants which are exuding a potentially lifesaving drug through their roots. It is the first small experimental set up of its kind undertaken in Europe.

The EMR team, led by Dr Chris Atkinson, and Professor Julian Ma, of St George’s, University of London, are seeking ways to use plants to produce large quantities of a drug known to block HIV infection.

Following the first year of trials with tobacco plants at EMR, Professor Ma is optimistic that the new techniques will enable effective HIV drugs and preventative medicines to be produced ‘in plants’ where they are needed and in sufficient quantities to be available to millions of people in the next five years.

The plant growing technologies being developed by EMR also raise the possibility of plants producing other drugs rapidly in large quantities to counter seriouspandemics.

In the current EMR HIV drug production experiments tobacco plants which have been transformed by Prof Ma’s team at St. George’s University of London to produce a protein called cyanovirin-N, which research shows prevents HIV from binding to human cells.

EMR is developing ways to grow the plants hydroponically in the research centre’s secure containment facility, the UniGro ‘GroDome’. The dome’s control and design sophistication allows carbon dioxide to be elevated, along with light levels and optimal temperatures all of which can improve the rate of plant growth. These factors are also being used scientifically to manipulate the way the plant produces the protein in the roots and how specifically to maximise root growth.

EMR scientists are also developing procedures to promote the release of the cyanovirin protein into the hydroponic nutrient solution which the plants are growing in. Being able to collect the protein from the nutrient solution flowing over the roots enables its extraction and purification to be much simpler than taking it from the leaves where it is also produced. It also should be much cheaper to extract from this solution

The growth potential of the plants is monitored closely and manipulated to optimise the concentration of cyanovirin production as possible. Additionally, the facility also enables the tobacco plants to propagated so once the initial transformation has been achieved 1,000’s of seeds can be produced which contain the lifesaving drug.

Dr Atkinson, Deputy Chief Executive at EMR, said: “This is a groundbreaking and globally significant piece of research with huge potential.

“Tobacco is an ideal non-food crop for this research thanks to the speed it grows and matures and our deep knowledge of its physiology and transformability, which has been the focus of scientific attention for more than 20 years.”

Professor Ma and EMR’s work is a three-year investigation funded by the National Institutes of Health, the US national medical research funding agency.

Cyanovirin is a protein produced by a cyanobacterium which occurs naturally in the blue-green algae found in a wide range of natural environments but are possibly most known from being visible in large blooms across freshwater.

Professor Ma believes that one of the first uses for cyanovirin produced by tobacco plants will be in combination with two other HIV prevention drugs as a cream or gel for women to use to prevent infection during sexual intercourse.

“A combination of drugs is important because the HIV, as with many viruses, can mutate rapidly,” he said.

“Once we have perfected the plant technology for producing cyanovirin and delivered successful clinical trials for this drug, growing these plants in differentparts of the world will be relatively simple.

“Producing a drug where it is actually needed will save all the difficulties and costs of large-scale manufacture and transportation.

“Success with this project could also pave the way towards developing the elusive HIV vaccine both cheaply and in the vast quantities we would need to help millions of people.”

Top Photo: Professor Julian Ma and Chris Atkinson inspect the plants promising low-cost drugs to prevent the spread of HIV

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