The experimental treatment that may have saved the lives of two Americans infected with the ebola virus grew from the pioneering efforts of researchers at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, led by Charles Arntzen.
Arntzen, reached by phone Tuesday morning, was quick to note that the treatment for the disease was developed and manufactured by two companies, Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego, and Kentucky Bioprocessing.
It was based on research he and colleagues did with tobacco plants at the ASU center.
“It’s extremely gratifying,” said Arntzen, who said he was surprised that anyone in government had the nerve to offer treatment that had not been thoroughly tested and approved by the FDA.
“Somebody took a risk and it’s going to jumpstart this whole field of research,” he said.
Arntzen, who pioneered the process of producing antigenic proteins from genetically modified plants, said he and his colleagues had been working on a vaccine for Ebola, using tobacco plants.
“I was involved in the initial research funded by the U.S. Army, which gave a grant to ASU, and the idea was we would use plant biotechnology to make both a vaccine and the monoclonal antibody."
The Associated Press reported that aid workers Nancy Writebol and Dr. Kent Brantly had been administered the experimental treatment called ZMapp and were improving, though it is impossible to say whether the drug is responsible.
In a statement on its website, Mapp Biopharmaceutical said the treatment is being developed in collaboration with LeafBio of San Diego, Defyrus Inc. of Canada, the U.S. government and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
It also said:
"Any decision to use an experimental drug in a patient would be a decision made by the treating physician under the regulatory guidelines of the FDA.
Mapp and its partners are cooperating with appropriate government agencies to increase production as quickly as possible."
The AP said the drug is made in tobacco plants at Kentucky BioProcessing, a subsidiary of Reynolds American Inc., in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Arntzen said that after his team’s initial research, “MAPP … subsequently selected the monocloal antibodies.” Arntzen said the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency then chose the Kentucky firm to build a facility for the pharmaceutical manufacturing of that drug and others.
The goal was to produce and stockpile an ebola vaccine as a defense against the potential weaponization of the virus.
“So there are three components, but our focus has been on the vaccine side, but it’s absolutely astonishing and incredibly rewarding as a scientist to see that it looks like the lives of two people have been saved.”
Arntzen said he was "surprised that someone in government had the risk-taking nerve to send this over to Africa. Normally in the pharmaceutical world it takes the FDA years and years.”
Arntzen said researchers at ASU’s Biodesign Institute are continuing “to advance the core technology for production of pharmaceuticals in tobacco.”
Groups at the institute are working on a number of treatments and vaccines, including a defense against West Nile virus and treatments in defense of chemical warfare, Arntzen said.
Arntzen and his research were featured in the Arizona Daily Star’s “100 Days of Science” series.
He is a Regent's Professor and the Florence Ely Nelson Presidential Endowed Chair at ASU. He was founding director of The Biodesign Institute.