Dec. 4, 1998 Targeting the enormous international epidemic in sexually transmitted diseases, researchers from The Johns Hopkins University have successfully evaluated soybean-produced antibodies that can prevent the spread of the genital herpes virus.
At the moment, trials have been conducted only with mice, but the scientists believe the so-called monoclonal antibodies (MABs) could work particularly well as a cheap and efficient topical lubricant for large-scale human populations in coming years.
The findings are reported in the December issue of the journal “Nature Biotechnology.”
Twenty years ago, scientists hailed MABs as “magic bullets,” whose special properties would be particularly effective in treating cancer. Although some anti-cancer antibodies were finally approved in 1997, an increasing number of reports have identified MABs grown in plants such as tobacco and soy as potentially effective in preventing everything from gastrointestinal infections to tooth decay.
Visions of genetically engineered soybean- and tobacco-producing “fields of pharmaceuticals” now may have advanced to the next stage of production. The Hopkins scientists speak more distinctly about producing “fields of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.”
“Everybody wants to lower their manufacturing costs, but we’re talking about several orders of magnitude of difference in thinking,” said Kevin Whaley, a Hopkins biophysicist who is one of the authors of the report. “Right now, people are using the antibodies for therapeutic purposes, and it costs from $200 to $1,000 a dose. We believe we can bring the costs for preventative applications down to pennies per application. As a public health product, this will be the biggest bang for the buck.”
The creation of soy-based antibodies actually occurred several years ago at Monsanto’s Agracetus division in Wisconsin and Protein Design Labs in Mountain View, Calif., Whaley said. When the Hopkins scientists learned that the companies had only considered MABs’ potential in therapeutic medicines, they made arrangements to collaborate on studies that focused precisely on more wide-ranging public health applications.
Because of the success in soy, the scientists have now turned their attention to producing even more effective antibodies in corn, setting their sights on developing a topical lubricant that could serve to prevent sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy.
“Eventually, these microbicides may merge contraceptive technology with STD technology and create the breakthrough we’re hoping for in the field of reproductive health,” Whaley said. “As costs go down, there will be the move to universal precautions, just like washing your hands after you use the bathroom, brushing your teeth after you eat, and having safe sex.”
Toxicology studies will begin soon, Whaley said, adding that he expects human trials to begin once the lubricant is proven safe.
Biophysicists at Hopkins are conducting their research, in part, under a private initiative called ReProtect, a company that has a research and development agreement with the university to develop reproductive health technology. ReProtect of Baltimore, Protein Design Labs of Mountain View, Calif., and Monsanto’s Agracetus in Middleton, Wis., contributed funding, resources or reagents to the project described in this release. Since ReProtect may, in the future, profit from commercial sales related to its research, the university manages its agreement with the company in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.
Johns Hopkins Biophysics projects with MABs: http://www.jhu.edu/~biophys/Cone/cone.html
Protein Design Labs: http://www.pdl.com/default.html
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