Ive written about modifying plants to do lots of fun things (vaccines, counter allergies, etc) in the past:
Unfortunately, this kind of technology has been held back by luddite/anti-biotechnology pressure from the general public. It has *not* moved forward as much as it could have:
About 15 years ago, it was thought that genetically engineered crops would be widely used to produce human proteins for use as drugs. When Dr. Whaley and Dr. Zeitlin (the scientists behind the anti-Ebola therapy currently in the news– erv) were both researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 1998, they published a paper with Monsanto scientists about a soybean genetically engineered to produce an antibody against genital herpes. But that idea has largely been abandoned, especially when it comes to using food crops, because of concerns that drugs produced in crops might inadvertently get into someone’s cornflakes.
But readers really caught on to the experimental therapy for Ebola. Growing antibodies for deadly diseases in plants is freaking cool. This is a fantastic opportunity to pull the general public away from random dingbats on the internet, and towards incredibly cool science.
A frequent question I heard after people learned about how the ‘top secret’ treatment was made, was ‘Are we making antibodies in plants for any other diseases?’
Here is the idea: In HIV World, scientists have isolated a handful of broadly neutralizing antibodies. These antibodies have the ability to neutralize >90% of HIV-1 variants.
That is neat… but unfortunately these antibodies are of limited utility. We have had them for decades, and they have not translated into a useful therapy, nor have they informed design of an efficacious HIV vaccine.
These antibodies are interesting laboratory reagents… and thats it.
Other scientists, however, are trying to figure out how to put these reagents to good use. David Baltimores lab is trying to turn them into gene therapy products. And several other labs would like to put these antibodies into gels, in combination with anti-retroviral drugs, to prevent HIV infection. Or, giving these antibodies as a therapy to HIV+ moms right before they give birth, to prevent transmission to baby.
For anti-HIV gels and immunotherapy, you would need to produce lots of anti-HIV antibodies (you know where this story is heading) so they want to produce these proteins in plants!
Before you get too excited or accuse the US government of hiding a cure for HIV/AIDS, what this particular paper really illustrates is how far away we are from this being a ‘standard’ protocol– They are testing very, very basic (but very, very necessary!) concepts:
1– Can we make anti-HIV antibodies in plants?
They tried several different antibodies. This was a smart move, as maybe one antibody or another just would not like the system, and wouldnt work. No way to know this information on the front end.
2– How can we alter the sugars on the surface of the proteins?
3– Do the plant derived anti-HIV antibodies still stop HIV?