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New Federal Grant to Help HIV Vaccine Research Effort Underway in Owensboro

The University of Louisville

HIV vaccine research being conducted in Owensboro is getting a boost from a federal grant. The National Institutes of Health Monday announced a five-year, $14.7 million dollar grant for a project being led by the Owensboro Cancer Research program.

The goal is to create a gel-based vaccine that involves tobacco plants.

Researchers in Daviess County have been extracting a protein found in red algae, injecting it into tobacco plants, growing the tobacco on a massive scale, and then extracting the protein for use in a gel. Lab tests show the protein blocks HIV cells from entering uninfected cells.

Researchers have developed a gel using the protein that they hope can be used to stop the spread of HIV during sexual intercourse.

Owensboro Cancer Research program director Kenneth Palmer says the irony of using tobacco plants to possibly create a medical breakthrough isn’t lost on him.

“We’re working with the plant that has been responsible for millions and millions of cases of cancer. It is satisfying that we can use that plant for a positive medical use,” Palmer said.

The protein being used by the Owensboro researchers is found in red algae that grows off the coast of New Zealand.

The possibility of creating a HIV-blocking gel from proteins grown in tobacco plants also meets two criteria Palmer described as important in the effort to halt the spread of HIV around the globe.

“It needs to be available in massive quantities at low cost. This is a bulk product that also needs to be cost-effective or otherwise it’s not available to the millions and millions of people who are at risk for HIV transmission.”

Palmer said the next step in the research process is to conduct animal testing with the gel. If successful, that would be followed by a human clinical trial involving 18 volunteers.

Other partners involved in the HIV vaccine research include the University of Pittsburgh; the Magee-Women’s Research Institute in Pittsburgh; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden; the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada; the University of Maryland, Baltimore; and Intrucept Biomedicine LLC in Owensboro.

Kevin is the News Director at WKU Public Radio. He has been with the station since 1999, and was previously the Assistant News Director, and also served as local host of Morning Edition.
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