East Malling grows plants to help restrict spread of HIV

Scientists on a quest to provide low-cost drugs to help restrict the spread of HIV across the world are working with plant specialists at East Malling Research (EMR) in Kent.

The horticultural researchers are now growing genetically-modified tobacco plants that produce a potentially life-saving drug through their roots. It is the first experiment set up of its kind undertaken in Europe.

The EMR team, led by Dr Chris Atkinson and Professor Julian Ma of St George's, University of London, are seeking ways to use plants to produce large quantities of a drug known to block HIV infection.

After the first year of trials with tobacco plants at EMR, Professor Ma is optimistic the techniques will enable effective HIV drugs and preventive medicines to be produced "in plants" in locations where they are needed and in sufficient quantities to be available to millions of people in the next five years.

The technologies also raise the possibility of plants producing other drugs rapidly in large quantities to counter serious pandemics.

The work is funded by the National Institutes of Health, the US national medical research funding agency.

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