While HIV isn’t the menace it once was in the industrialized world, the virus remains a critical health threat in developing countries, with 1.7 million new infections occurring each year worldwide. Designing treatments to prevent the spread of HIV is critical to disease containment, yet moving effective products into the afflicted nations is typically impractical and expensive.
Dr. Evangelia Vamvaka was part of an Innovative Genomics Institute research team that developed an ingenious solution to this logistical problem—adding anti-HIV proteins to rice. The rice produces a transgenic (GMO) protein that inhibits the virus, and does so with great efficacy in the presence of other compounds from the plant. The rice can be ground into a powder and potentially used as an HIV preventative wherever rice is grown, which includes many countries still plagued by the virus. In an August 2018 paper, the researchers laid out the importance of their work:
[T]he crude seed extract [can] 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.
University of Florida plant geneticist Kevin Folta and Lethbridge, Canada high school student Michelle Wu sit down with Vamvaka to learn more about how this potential treatment works and its prospects for improving public health in the world’s poorest countries.
The Talking Biotech podcast, produced by Kevin Folta, is available for listening or subscription: