Developing plant-based technology against HIV

Developing plant-based technology against HIV

As the world commemorates World Aids Day on 1 December, researchers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa have made progress in developing a biomanufacturing process for HIV antibodies.

Using species of the tobacco plant, CSIR researchers, in collaboration with South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases and Mapp Biopharmaceutical, have successfully produced HIV antibodies at levels that bring the health industry a small step closer to an economically viable preventative treatment against HIV.

 “In 2001, leaders of 189 nations recognised that Aids is among the greatest development crises in human history, and they agreed to a set of targets to halt and begin to reverse the epidemic by 2015. Since then, important scientific advances have been made in the fight against the virus that causes Aids, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and the CSIR is proud to be part of this scientific advance,” says Dr Tsepo Tsekoa, CSIR biopharming platform champion.

Antibodies, with the ability to neutralise many different strains of HIV, which were first discovered in an international acute HIV infection study led by CAPRISA in 2004, results reported in 2008, were initially produced using a mammalian-based cell culture system. CSIR researchers have now succeeded in making equivalent antibodies using Nicotiana benthmiana, which is related to the commercial tobacco plant.

The genetic codes of the HIV antibodies were introduced into the leaves to produce the antibodies in the plant.

Tests showed that the plant-expressed antibodies were able to neutralise HIV isolates in the laboratory. During the past year, CSIR researchers showed that the antibodies could be produced at high levels that are potentially economically viable for the treatment of HIV in Southern Africa.

The next steps include the scale-up of the process, formulation and the design of potential products that could be tested on humans in collaboration with the consortium. These may include gels or other forms of pre-exposure prophylaxis against HIV.

“Although an effective vaccine against HIV is yet to be discovered, the past 32 years of the epidemic has seen some important developments that are leading us towards the discovery of an effective HIV vaccine. There are high hopes that the world is ‘getting to zero’,” says Tsepo.