Development of plant-derived topical medications to prevent HIV/AIDS and other STD's

Researchers at the Biodesign Institute at ASU have been tapped to lead development of plant-derived topical medications that would prevent HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases.

A $7.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will fund a collaborative research center headed by Charles Arntzen, who co-directs the Biodesign Institute's Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology. Internationally known for his work on plant-derived vaccines, Arntzen, a Regent's professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, will be the principal investigator for the project.

The new center draws on the expertise of ASU researchers with diverse backgrounds. It also establishes a public-private partnership with Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego and one of the National Vaccine Testing Centers at the University of Maryland.

The research will focus on developing microbicides, medications that would kill or block sexually-transmitted viruses at the point of contact and could be formulated as gels, creams or time-released applications such as a vaginal sponge or ring.

“This grant is an example of the success we expect the Biodesign Institute to attract,” says George Poste, Biodesign Institute Director. “By engaging scientists from diverse disciplines in new ways and involving the private sector from the outset, we are uniquely positioned to make progress quickly.”

Arntzen said that the size of the NIH grant demonstrates confidence in the innovative approach the center will take as well as in the potential of microbicides to fight the spread of AIDS. He believes plant-derived solutions would have benefits over other methods of drug development.

“Many of the countries with significant HIV infection rates do not have sophisticated pharmaceutical production capabilities,” says Arntzen. “We believe plant-based options will be easier and cheaper to produce.”

Artntzen notes that, even if they are not produced locally, plant-based microbicides are likely to be more stable than chemical compounds, standing up to heat and storage.

At the recent International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, global health organizations urged greater investment in microbicide research given the suitability for use in the developing countries where HIV rates are highest. Women in these countries often have little control over their circumstances and do not wield the power to insist on condom use or practice abstinence. Microbicides offer these women a better option to protect themselves, and ease of application would encourage use.

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