An international team of researchers has come up with an innovative solution to the HIV pandemic – genetically modified rice.
GMO rice has already been developed to tackle malnutrition and climate change. Now scientists from the US, UK, and Spain have developed a new strain to manage HIV symptoms in countries where traditional medicines can be hard to access. The results of a new study were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this week.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 36,900,000 people living with HIV in 2017, 25,700,000 of whom were in Africa. And while the spread of the immunocompromising virus has stalled since the epidemic of the 1980s, there were still 2.1 million people newly infected with HIV in 2015.
Right now, exciting new drugs, vaginal implants, and experimental HIV vaccines to prevent and manage the virus are in development – human trials for the latter are expected to start in 2019. As of 2018, however, medics rely on two methods, sexual health education and oral medication, to control the spread of the virus.
Only one person has ever been fully cured but patients with HIV typically take an antiretroviral drug that prevents the virus from replicating inside the body, essentially stalling the onset of AIDS. If properly treated, the virus can be managed and patients can expect to live a long and healthy life. The problem is not everybody has access to these drugs. The team says their GMO rice could offer an effective – and affordable – solution to HIV positive patients in developing countries.
It works because the rice seeds produce three proteins – the monoclonal antibody 2G12, and the lectins griffithsin and cyanovirin-N – which preliminary in vitro tests show bind to gp120 (the glycoprotein that enables the virus to target cells) and neutralize HIV. These seeds can be ground up to form a paste that can then be applied as a topical cream, which counterbalances the virus in the exact same way as the antiretroviral medication.
Importantly, when the crops are fully grown, the seeds can be produced on-site for almost no cost, making the treatment extremely accessible to those who might otherwise have to travel miles to reach a medical clinic. Cereal seeds, the researchers explain, are some of the most suitable materials for producing medication because the infrastructure is already there.
There are a few hurdles researchers will have to jump before the rice becomes widely available, not least people's aversion to anything GMO. Scientists will first have to show that there are no harmful side effects and second have to meet the various regulatory restrictions in place in the countries they hope to reach – but the results so far are promising.
“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," the study authors explain.