ASU researchers help create experimental Ebola drug


An experimental Ebola treatment with roots in Arizona may have saved the lives of two American aid workers infected while in Africa.

ZMapp was developed by San Diego-based Mapp Pharmaceutical and produced at Kentucky BioProcessing, but the drug is based on research conducted at Arizona State University.

Charles Arntzen, an ASU Regents' professor and founding director of the Biodesign Institute, has focused his work on plant-based vaccine delivery systems. And it turns out, tobacco plants seem to be perfect factories for pumping out Ebola antibodies.

Ebola-specific antibodies in plants were pioneered under a grant given to ASU by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. According to ASU, the Army funded the development of the drug so that it could be stockpiled in the event of a natural outbreak or bioterrorism event.

Scientists from ASU and Mapp have been working together for 15 years.

Producing the drug begins with exposing mice to fragments of the virus, generating Ebola-specific antibodies. The tobacco plants are then induced to replicate the antibodies.

"Most importantly, you need to have population of antibodies," said associate professor Qiang "Shawn" Chen.

Within a couple weeks of being modified, the plants are harvested, ground into liquid, purified and turned into tiny doses at Kentucky BioProcessing.

"These antibodies will bind to the Ebola virus to prevent them from either getting to other cells or, you know, basically immobilize them," Chen said.

With the infection of new cells blocked by the antibodies, the human immune system may be able to fight off the virus.

The drug has never been tested in humans, but a related plant-based vaccine tested in mice showed an 80 percent effectiveness against the Ebola virus, according to ASU.

The United States government allowed compassionate use of the experimental drug for Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, and there have been reports that the patients are improving.

The 2014 outbreak of Ebola in west Africa is the largest and longest in history.

Ebola is capable of producing viral hemorrhagic fever, shock and multiple organ failure often leading to death. It typically has a fatality rate of 90 percent.

The World Health Organization declared the outbreak an international public health emergency requiring an extraordinary response to stop the spread.

Chen said this research could lead to treatment for other diseases.

"Hopefully someday that will be developed into a drug which can treat patients who are exposed to West Nile virus," he said.