Honors Gallery

Development of Large-Scale Production, Anti-HIV Microbicide in Soya Beans

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2018

Award Type: National

National Cancer Institute (NCI)

Cost is a significant barrier in developing human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) treatments that can be accessed by low-income countries where acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is rapidly spreading.

The National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) Molecular Targets Laboratory partnered with the Frederick National Laboratory and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) to develop a low-cost method for producing effective and safe HIV infection prevention. These researchers demonstrated that soya bean seeds produce cyanovirin-N (CV-N), a protein capable of permanently inactivating different types of HIV and preventing infection and AIDS. Historically, scientists produced the CV-N protein in a bacterium (Escherichia coli) “expression system.” However, due to high cost, production of CV-N in bacterial expression systems is not a practical option to make large amounts of the protein. Genetically modified soya beans provide a low-cost method of producing microbicides that protect against transmission of HIV and prevent AIDS. It is scalable, meaning that the same method can be used to make increasing amounts of protein, including the large amounts required for patient studies.

The soybean-produced CV-N is now being developed into a microbicide gel in a collaboration between NCI, the University of London, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR Biosciences) in South Africa, and EMBRAPA. The groups hope to provide the microbicide gel to Africa, Brazil, and other developing countries where HIV transmission is a public health priority. The soya bean production method could provide a low-cost, effective method for preventing HIV.

The production technique is sustainable for resource-poor countries in which HIV and AIDS are rapidly spreading. This accomplishment would pave the way for anti-HIV microbicide development, especially in countries with limited public health funding available for treating HIV infection.

The importance of the NCI’s collaborative strategy was highlighted by the journal Science, which featured the production of CV-N in soy in the “Editor’s Choice” section of the February 13, 2015 issue. This report singled out the achievement of the NCI, EMBRAPA, CSIR collaboration as a significant advance in the production of biopharmaceuticals in plants. Bringing this technological advancement to the attention of the broad research community, the Science article notes that “Affordable antivirals used as vaginal microbicides could have a substantial impact on the HIV epidemic, particularly in the developing world. One potential candidate is cyanovirin-N, a protein produced by a cyanobacterium that prevents viral entry in preclinical studies. Large-scale production of cyanovirin-N, however, is prohibitively expensive. To get around this, (Barry) O'Keefe et al. genetically engineered soybean seeds to make cyanovirin-N.

The seeds produced large quantities of the antiviral, and it survived the normal industrial processing systems already in place for soybeans. By rough estimate, one greenhouse growing engineered soybeans could provide enough cyanovirin-N to protect a woman for 90 years.” The high potential of the CV-N protein cited in this article illustrates the impact the technology could have in preventing one of the world’s most serious public health and economic issues.

Contact: Dr. Barry O’Keefe, (301) 846-5332, [email protected]