Could Genetically Modified Rice Help End HIV?

Scientists are developing a genetically modified version of the rice grain that, they hope, could help to combat HIV.

We might ask, why bother? HIV medications work, they are generally well tolerated, and they are relatively easy to deploy, because most are not dependent on being in cold storage. These things are, broadly speaking, true for many people, particularly those living in the West.

However, if someone does not have access to universal healthcare, the cost of HIV medications can be high. In addition, nations like those in sub-Saharan Africa or India, which are battling multiple factors that create poverty, need novel approaches to HIV that can drive down infection rates.

Scientists at the University of Lleida, Spain, together with the leading IrsiCaixa AIDS Research Institute in Barcelona, believe they have come up with one such solution: transgenic rice.

This genetically modified line of rice contains an antibody and two kinds of proteins that can prevent HIV from interacting with human cells, thereby stopping it before it can get a hold in our bodies and start replicating. We do already have medications for this, but getting them to the people who need them most in impoverished areas has been a major financial and logistical challenge.

This line of rice, however, can grow anywhere there is need. To use it, you process the rice into a cream that can be applied to the skin. The proteins from the rice permeate the skin and enter the body. The processing cost would be extremely low and could be done locally, further cutting costs for things like transportation and outsourcing manufacturing.

In fact, the researchers believe that people could grow the rice and produce the paste themselves, giving them a low-cost line of defense against HIV.

Researcher Paul Christou explains why this approach is so exciting. “Plant-produced pharmaceutical proteins can be scaled up very easily and inexpensively without the need for expensive fermenter facilities simply by planting as many plants as needed to achieve a certain production target. Costs are minimal after the creation of the first plant producing the microbicide. And in our case, the three molecules can be produced in one plant, thus reducing the costs even further.”

Broadly speaking, HIV rates are in decline, but with an estimated 36.7 million people living with HIV, 30 percent of whom do not know their status, we still need novel approaches to stopping HIV’s spread. This line of transgenic rice offers several benefits, but it does come with one big problem: convincing the public that GM rice is safe.

To be clear, the scientists in this study have already said that they will need to rigorously test the genetically modified rice to ensure they have not unintentionally introduced any genetic variants that could be harmful to humans. This is done as standard in all genetic modification, and that framework will work here.

Yet, despite rigorous science surrounding GM foods, the general public still has apprehension and, in some cases, outright mistrust over consuming genetically modified produce. That’s despite the science that shows these products are generally safe.

Scientists have been keen to point out that nature “genetically modifies” things frequently, for example the humble sweet potato appears to carry naturally genetically modified components.

In addition, we artificially modify living organisms all the time. Look at livestock breeding for one example of how we have changed the animals’ physiology over the years. We’ve done this not through direct genetic manipulation but through breeding, which creates much of the same outcome but in a more haphazard manner.

Genetic modification at the cellular level does come with some added risks, and that’s why it is heavily restricted, but by the same token it comes with major benefits. Genetic alterations can be precise, extremely easy to analyze and carefully controlled.

The major thing going for GM rice as HIV-fighter is that it’s applied topically, in paste form, rather than eaten. In this sense, it isn’t much different from the many drugs already on the market that have been modified to make them effective or more exact at combating certain illnesses.

A topical product derived from GM rice could therefore be one new important tool in fighting HIV, particularly in underprivileged nations which already grow rice.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

36 comments

Chad A
Chad Anderson2 months ago

Thank you.

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Ingrid A
Ingrid A3 months ago

Thanks very much

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Vincent T
Past Member 3 months ago

Thanks for posting

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Leanne K
Leanne K3 months ago

If you are opposed to testing and experimenting upon animals and believe Care2 ought to not oublish articles that rely upon information that is supposedly gleaned from animal torture, you may like to add your name to my petition https://www.thepetitionsite.com/118/422/202/care2-stop-publishing-stories-based-on-or-referencing-animal-testing/

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Leanne K
Leanne K3 months ago

Fair dinkum Care2 remeber we are against animal testing yet now its ok? No, this is just wrong

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Laura K
Laura K3 months ago

tyfs

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Angela K
Angela K3 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Marija M
Marija M3 months ago

tks

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Barbara V
Barbara V4 months ago

HORSEWEEDS! No GMOs, thank you very much.

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Margaret G
Margaret G4 months ago

This rice might be great way to fight HIV. But I have some questions.
Could it lead to antibiotic resistance on the part of the HIV virus?
It stops the virus from bonding to human cells. Could this rice stop something beneficial from bonding to human cells?
What are the long term implications of using the rice paste?
What are the long term implications of eating the rice? I find it hard to believe that poor people would not eat something that seem so much like a food that they have been eating for millennia..

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