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THE CUTTING EDGE | Heard on the Beat

Technique Uses Plant Cells to Grow Herpes Antibodies

November 30, 1998|PAUL JACOBS

In the December edition of Nature Biotechnology, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and ReProtect in Baltimore, Monsanto's Agracetus division in Wisconsin, and Protein Design Labs in Mountain View, Calif., report that they have been able to create soy plants that make antibodies to the genital herpes virus.

There is still a long way to go before these antibodies are tested in humans and approved by regulators as safe and effective against herpes infection. But, if successful, the same technique could be used to treat a variety of human diseases, including serious infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria. The technique could also be used to create antibodies to sperm, providing an inexpensive form of birth control.

The hope is that by using plant cells instead of animal cells in culture to grow the antibodies, scientists will be able to produce antibodies by the ton, ensuring a low price for whatever products are developed.

The researchers believe it is unlikely that people will develop allergic reactions to medications that are derived from plants such as corn and soy. The mouse experiments appear to show that the antibodies continue to have a protective effect against herpes hours after their initial application--a desirable feature in drugs that target sexually transmitted diseases, said Kevin J. Whaley, a scientist at Hopkins' school of public health.

Whaley pointed to a report in the May issue of Nature Medicine that showed that a plant-grown antibody was effective in blocking streptococcus mutans, the germ responsible for tooth decay. The study may pave the way for an affordable, decay-fighting toothpaste or mouthwash.

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