Scientists Have Developed Genetically Modified Rice To Prevent HIV

New research suggests that genetically modified rice could provide a way to prevent HIV. In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the United States, United Kingdom and Spain explained their technique to genetically modify a strain of rice to produce HIV-neutralizing proteins. It's the latest in the long-fought battle to help curb the HIV epidemic.
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.
A vaccine, however, still isn’t available for HIV, so oral medications and increasing public knowledge about how the disease spreads have been the best defense. Oral medications aren’t always available in developing countries, so more options are still needed. This new strain of rice contains the same HIV-neutralizing proteins that the oral medication does, allowing for a new potential pathway to HIV eradication.

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.
The rice produces two types of proteins and one kind of antibody that can bind to HIV viruses. This stops the HIV virus from interacting with human cells. The rice can be made into a topical cream that can be applied to the skin where these special proteins can enter the body, protecting that person from HIV.
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.