EU funded biotech project may provide plant-based HIV vaccine
European scientists have established the use of genetically modified maize seeds as the basis of a vaccination that can provide immunity to HIV and so stop the virus from spreading. The maize seeds are easy to cultivate and the costs of manufacture, transportation and storage of the vaccine can be kept low. Further research and development could mean that in a few years, distribution of the plant based vaccine in Sub-Saharan Africa will be possible. This research could signal a medical breakthrough in the fight against AIDS.
Scientists from the Universidad de Lleida (University of Lleida) in Catalonia have published a study confirming that maize seeds are an effective and sure platform within molecular agriculture for alleviating diseases. Over the next few years AIDS could be one of the first diseases to benefit from these results, although regulations for this technology are being developed at the same time as research is being undertaken. The work is part of the EU funded Pharma-Planta project, involving 39 European and South African research teams.
The use of maize, the third most important cereal in the world, has many advantages for molecular agriculture. Among these is its physiology, its capacity to express recombinant proteins in the seeds, its widespread cultivation and its genetic diversity, as well as being anti-allergenic and non-toxic.
Sowing the seeds of success
Last March, transgenic maize became the first plant to be developed commercially for medical use. The results, which were published in the American PNAS scientific journal, found that a maize seed with genes from the 2G12 antibody (already known for its capacity to neutralise infection from the virus) could produce antibodies against the transmission of HIV.
Currently, the same team of scientists from the Universidad de Lleida who took part in this research have put forward in the review Plant Science 'a more practical and productive approach to evaluate the ecological and toxicological risks, in which a scientific problem refers to a significant, final evaluation, and the hypotheses of risk predict effects in which the final evaluation is not a transformed plant, but the product resulting from that plant', says project leader Paul Christou.
According to the researchers, the use and genetic modification of plants for the production of protein-based drugs is useful for the treatment, prevention and early detection of human and animal diseases, as well as for the production of vaccines against tuberculosis, diabetes and rabies. Paul Christou states that, 'in the last two decades, plants have been shown to be an excellent alternative for the production of medicines in laboratory research'.
Until now, conventional methods using microbial systems and animals have been used in the production of drugs and involve high costs and limits in terms of safety and stability. Amongst other things, excessively high prices prevent the people in most need from accessing pharmaceutical drugs, as the study shows. 'Plants offer a solution to the problem because pharmacological production using maize is cheaper', Paul Christou underlines. Paul Christou is also a member of the European Union Expert Committee on Food Safety.
In addition to the price, the proteins produced in maize seeds can remain intact for many years without the need for refrigeration, thus enabling vaccines to be delivered to countries such as those situated in the Tropics and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Taking account of risk
The risks of the open farming of plants for the production of molecules for pharmaceutical use relate to their impact on the environment through the gene flow, and their impact on the health of animals and humans through inadvertently consuming these. The research team has decided that the regulation processes 'should be applied in proportion to the risks of each individual case', as some plants farmed for the production of pharmaceutical drugs are harmless and others vary in their toxicity. In every case a level of risk acceptance has to be established in order to avoid the consequences of any possible exposure.
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