February 23, 2006

Sunflowers May Be Useful in the Fight Against AIDS

FARGO, N.D. -- Sunflower farmers say a German study looking into possible links between the plant and AIDS medicine may grab headlines, but they believe it's too early to increase production of the crop.

Scientists at the University of Bonn say a substance used by sunflowers to fight off a plant disease could be used in new drugs to prevent HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from reproducing.

The German researchers have patented their method and are looking for private partners to manufacture the substance, according to the Bonn University Web site. It remains to be seen whether the findings would hold up in clinical trials, a statement said.

The study is not yet on the radar at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a spokesman for the federal agency said.

"Right now it's all very preliminary," said Mike Clemens, a sunflower farmer from Wimbledon, in eastern North Dakota. "It's pretty exciting to hear the news, but you don't know if this is something that will take 10 acres, 1,000 acres or 10,000 acres."

Other farmers also are cautious.

"The bottom line is whether it will do much to increase acreage," said Dean Sonnenberg, a sunflower producer from northern Colorado. "My guess is that it won't have much of an impact."

Researchers said they discovered the link while they were looking at antifungal properties the sunflower uses to fight off sclerotinia, a disease commonly known as white mold. Sunflower groups spent about $500,000 last year to fight the mold, said Larry Kleingartner, executive director of the National Sunflower Association.

The anti-fungal substance in the sunflower plant is dicaffeoyl quinic acid, or DCQA. It can be found in small doses in the artichoke and wild chicory, but researchers said it would be cheaper to make the drug from the sunflower plant.

"I think it's really premature to say the study will lead to more production," said Roger Johnson, North Dakota's agriculture commissioner. "My sense is that it's pretty early stage research."

Johnson said the findings highlight the need for the United States to spend more money on agricultural research and technology.

"We are being sort of a left-behind country with new research," Johnson said. "It's really kind of scary. America used to lead the world with new research and new breakthroughs."

The study also shows the importance of sunflower producers, Clemens said.

"We are needed out there. You can't ignore us," he said. "We're doing a lot of good things for people behind the scenes."