A strain of genetically modified rice, described in research published this week, may be able to help patients manage HIV, according to Newsweek.

The disease affects nearly 37 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and there is still no vaccine available. Health education is still the best approach to prevention, and a variety of oral medications exist that can help manage the disease. But in the developing world, where the disease is concentrated, the expense and availability of these medications often stands in the way of widespread use. Two thirds of the world’s HIV patients are in Africa, where nearly one in every 25 adults suffer from the disease. Over two million people were newly infected with the virus in 2015.

Research published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes a genetically modified rice strain, which could help combat HIV using the same HIV-neutralizing proteins as oral medications. The rice strain produces two proteins, called griffithsin and cyanovirin-N, as well as the monoclonal antibody 2G12. They bind to a glycoprotein that allows the HIV virus to target cells, according to IFL Science, preventing it from interacting with cells in the body.

The rice can be cheaply processed on-site into a paste, which would be applied topically to the skin, allowing the proteins to enter the body. According to the researchers, this would protect the individual from the effects of HIV in the same way as antiretroviral drugs, by stopping the virus from replicating within the body, and holding off the progression of HIV into AIDS.

In developing countries, including much of HIV-stricken Africa, this would hold an advantage in allowing agricultural communities to grow the rice and produce the paste themselves. They would no longer need to travel to a clinic or rely on medications produced abroad, and the necessary infrastructure is already in place. In many cases, this option is most needed in the same areas in which the virus is most widespread.

“This groundbreaking strategy is realistically the only way that microbicidal cocktails can be manufactured at a cost low enough for the developing world, where HIV prophylaxis is most in demand,” according to the paper.

Before such a plan becomes reality, more research is required to make sure the paste would be safe to use, and meet a range of regulations in each nation where it would be used.

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