Aspirin, Ginseng and Caffeine are just some of theÂ useful medications produced by plants. Now scientists have adapted the much maligned tobacco plant to create a drug they hope will combat HIV.Â UK regulators have approved the first clinical trial of specially designed antibodies that stop the virus passing from person to person.
Eleven women will be treated with the topical treatment, which has been createdfrom genetically modified tobacco plants. Should it prove safe at different doses, larger trials will follow to test its effectiveness. It is hoped that the antibodies will reduce the risk of treated women from catching the disease.
The landmark trial marks the culmination of a controversial E.U funded project to develop a drug from an engineered plant and take it through all the manufacturing stages.Â Most drugs are currently made at great expense in fermentation vats containing bacteria or mammalian cells, but the mass production of medicines in genetically modified plants could reduce costs by as many as 100 times, making it far cheaper to produce life-saving drugs.
Project researcherÂ Professor Julian Ma, atÂ St Georgeâs, University of London, said: âThis is a red letter day for the field.Â âThe approval from the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) for us to proceed with human trials is an acknowledgement that monoclonal antibodies can be made in plants to the same quality as those made using existing conventional production systems.
âThat is something many people did not believe could be achieved.âÂ The clinical trial is being carried out at the University of Surrey Clinical Research Centre.Â HIV is exchanged via bodily fluids and is most commonly spread during sex.Â At the end of 2008, an estimated 83,000 adults aged over 15 were living with HIV in the UK. Of these, just over a quarter did not know they were infected.
The last stage of the virus is Aids, when the patientâs immune system stops working and they develop life-threatening illnesses. Patients in western countries can live with HIV for many years thanks to antiretroviral drugs, but these are often not available in the developing world.
The active ingredient in the vaginal cream is an antibody called P2G12. If successful, the investigators will try combining it with other HIV-neutralising antibodies.Â The genetically modified tobacco plants producing P2G12 were grown in containment greenhouses at the Fraunhofer Institute in Aachen, Germany.
The antibody was isolated and purified in a custom-designed processing plant on the same site. It is the first time a license has been granted to manufacture engineered pharmaceutical products from plants in Europe.Â Professor Rainer Fischer, Pharma-Planta coordinator and Fraunhofer Director, said: âWe now have a facility in Europe for producing modern medicines in transgenic plants that is unique in the world, although this has taken many years and much investment to establish.Â âThis approval is a springboard for European plant biotechnology and will enable many important medical products to be realised.â
The researchers claim there is next to no risk of such GM plants spreading or contaminating other crops because they are contained and would not be grown on an agricultural scale.