Sunflowers key to new AIDS drugs

January 11, 2006

Brussels, 10 Jan 2006

Researchers from the Bonn Centre of Molecular Biotechnology (CEMBIO) have made a breakthrough in the synthesis of a new range of drugs that they hope will revolutionise treatment of the AIDS virus.

The hot new topic of AIDS research focuses on the DCQA (dicaffeoyl quinic acid) group of drugs. Unfortunately, the drug is extremely rare, occurring in foods such as artichoke and wild chicory in miniscule quantities, leaving a market price of 1,000,000 euro per gram. In spite of the price, this area is however worth pursuing: in the lab, DCQA has prevented the AIDS virus from reproducing.

Researchers from the University of Bonn have uncovered what could be a new way of manufacturing DCQA at a fraction of the current cost. Working on sunflowers, the team investigated how the plant deals with attacks from the White Stem Rot fungus. They found that those plants which were resistant to White Stem Rot attacks produced their own DCQA.

'Dicaffeoyl quinic acid (DCQA) can prevent the HI virus from reproducing, at least in cell cultures,' explains Claudio Cerboncini, who now works at the Caesar Research Centre. 'It is one of the few substances known today which inhibit viral integrase - this is an enzyme which is essential if the pathogen is to reproduce.'

These 'integrase inhibitors' are considered to be a huge breakthrough for AIDS research and treatment, as the drugs will have few side-effects compared to the current drug cocktails, which are life saving, but debilitating. Initial clinical tests seem to confirm DCQA's potential.

'We want to attempt to cultivate sunflower cells or other plant cells in a nutrient solution together with the mould sclerotinia sclerotiorum (White Stem Rot) and then obtain the enzyme from the liquid,' CEMBIO researcher Ralf Theisen says. 'If things go according to plan, we could produce DCQA at a substantially reduced cost.'

Dr Theisen specialises in how specific genes can be turned on and off, in zero-gravity tests, but this research has applications in the synthesis of cheap DCQA. If the research goes to plan, the sunflower's DCQA gene will be identified, copied and smuggled, 'into a bacteria, the latter can produce the enzyme in large quantities. The critical step of synthesis would then be child's play and could be carried out on an industrial basis by using fermentation technology.'

Further information:
Ralf Theisen
University of Bonn
Tel: +49 228-73-3684

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2005
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