University of Louisville gets $14.7 million federal grant to develop tobacco protein for HIV and AIDS prevention

Researchers from the University of Louisville are leading an international effort to develop a gel from tobacco plants that will contain a specific protein to prevent the transmission of HIV.

The project is being funded by a five-year, $14.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, according to a press release from the university.

The plan is to develop a gel containing a protein called griffithsin, which has been shown to prevent HIV in the lab. The gel will be meant for use during sexual intercourse by people at risk for HIV transmission, according to the release.

They will develop this microbicide by injecting a synthetic copy of the protein into a tobacco mosaic virus and then this virus will carry the protein into the tobacco leaves. After 12 days, the researchers harvest the leaves and extract the mass-produced protein for development into the vaccine, the release says.

Kenneth Palmer (University of Louisville)

“Our goal is to optimize the delivery system of the protective agent, which in this case is a gel, and determine its safety and estimates of its efficacy, leading to a first-in-humans clinical trial,” said research leader Kenneth Palmer, professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the Owensboro Cancer Research Program of U of L’s James Graham Brown Cancer Center.

“People may question why a cancer program is conducting research into HIV prevention,” center Director Donald Miller said in the release. “In fact, cancer can be a result of every major disease that we know about, and HIV infection is no exception.”

David L. Dunn, the university’s executive vice president for health affairs, said: “Approximately seven years ago, U of L and Owensboro Health created a joint venture to develop a world-class plant pharmaceutical program that would have an impact globally. Today’s announcement, coupled with the announcement we made in May about the Helmsley Charitable Trust providing funding to our research into two other cancer vaccines utilizing tobacco plants, demonstrates that the vision is becoming a reality.”

U of L President James Ramsey said, “The development of a low-cost method to prevent transmission of HIV certainly is something that is desperately needed and the use of tobacco plants as a method of carrying the vaccine appears to be key in the process.”

The grant provides for three steps. The first involves the manufacturing of the microbicide active ingredient, the second ensures that the vaccine is safe and actually provides protection from infection, and the third involves conducting a clinical trial, as well as conducting the first-in-humans testing.

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