Ebola Therapy: ASU Biodesign Develops Cutting-Edge Plant Technology

The experimental drug used to treat two American health care workers infected with the Ebola virus was developed in part by researchers right here at ASU.

They hope that the special plant-based technology used to create the Ebola treatment might be an important path to treating other infectious diseases.

See also: -Best of Phoenix 2012: Bioscavenger Project, Mor Lab at ASU Biodesign Institute

For the past decade, researchers at ASU have collaborated on a variety of projects with a small, San Diego-based biotech company called Mapp Pharmaceutical, says Joseph Caspermeyer, a public information officer with ASU's Biodesign Institute. In 2005, the Biodesign Institute and Mapp Pharmaceutical decided to try to develop an Ebola vaccine or treatment.

Dr. Charles Arntzen, the founding director of ASU's Biodesign Institute, has worked since then with Mapp Pharmaceutical to develop ZMapp, a potentially life-saving Ebola treatment. ZMapp is a cocktail of three different Ebola antibodies, and is administered after exposure to the deadly virus.

"The antibody sort of acts like a sponge," Caspermeyer says. "It's injected, then whatever Ebola virus is in body, it will just soak it up."

The treatment hasn't been approved by the FDA yet -- in fact, it had never been tried on humans before it was given to the two aid workers late last month -- but it is rather effective in animals. In test results published in 2011, mice that were infected with Ebola and then given ZMapp had a high survival rate: eighty percent lived. The drug also showed promise in tests on monkeys.

Oh, and have no fear: The tests were run at a Maryland lab, nowhere near the Valley.

The FDA usually requires three sets of clinical trials to prove the safety of a treatment. ZMapp hasn't been through that process yet. But because the American healthcare workers were very sick (and not on U.S. soil), a special "compassion clause" allowed them access to take the unapproved drug, Caspermeyer says. They were fully apprised of the risk of taking an untested treatment -- one of the two, after all, is a physician -- and both decided to go forward with trying ZMapp.

"It was like something out of the movies," Caspermeyer says.

The medication hasn't been produced in quantities large enough to provide treatment to others infected with the Ebola. And there's the question of cost.

"To do science like this, it takes a village," says Caspermeyer. The Biotech Institute is supported be a number of multimillion dollar grants, he says, and a philanthropic foundation paid for the two workers' treatment.

But for now, the Biodesign Institute is proud to have played a part in this important development.

And the Biodesign Institute, through the work of Dr. Arntzen and others, is a leader in developing plant-based technology like ZMapp. Researchers there hope to use plants to create vaccines and therapeutics for a number of different infectious diseases. One of the main thrusts of the Institute is to tackle infectious diseases worldwide.

Arntzen has been at ASU since 2000 and is "a pioneer" in creating plant-based medical technologies, Caspermeyer says. In fact, perhaps Arntzen and ASU's biggest contribution to ZMapp was the idea to use tobacco plants to produce the treatment. "That's something that we laid the groundwork and foundation for," says Caspermeyer.

Arntzen, who continues his research at ASU today, tried a number of different plants in the development of ZMapp before settling on tobacco.

"Think of a tobacco plant simply as a drug factory," says Caspermeyer. Tobacco can produce large amounts of a treatment cheaply, quickly, and at scale. Researchers take a virus common to tobacco plants and use it to inject the Ebola antibodies into tobacco plants, he says. When the plants grow up, they have produced a large quantity of the antibody material. The plant is then harvested and used to make the medication.

And using tobacco and other plant-based therapeutics is an approach that can be applied to a number of different diseases. Dr. Qiang Chen, a Biodesign researcher who worked on the ZMapp mouse studies, has been examining plant-based treatments for West Nile virus, with good progress in studies on mice. The Institute is also studying how plant-based technology could be used to treat Hepatitis and the Norwalk virus.

The two aid workers treated with ZMapp were flown to Atlanta, where reports indicate that they continue to improve. And at the Biodesign Institute, the research continues.

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Ashley Cusick
Contact: Ashley Cusick