If the experimental Ebola therapy ZMapp proves effective, defeating a rare and deadly virus won’t be the only reason the drug is groundbreaking. It also could herald a new age of drug manufacturing involving tobacco plants.
The plant in question is Nicotiana benthamiana, to be exact. It’s a relative of the tobacco plant used to make cigarettes. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the San Diego, Calif. company that created ZMapp, chose to use the plant to create the drugs because it’s particularly susceptible to being infected by plant viruses, notes Michael Goodin, Ph.D., a plant pathologist at the University of Kentucky. Using a plant to grow the drug's active ingredients also minimizes the risk of contamination from mammalian viruses than if they were grown using animal or human cells.
“Viruses are able to replicate to high levels in this plant, and that’s why it’s so good for research in biopharmaceutical applications,” said Goodin in a phone interview with The Huffington Post. "It’s basically a lab rat.”
Here’s how that “lab rat” helped create ZMapp. First scientists engineered a plant virus by combining it with the genes of the Ebola antibodies needed for the drug, tricking the virus into producing a lot of that antibody protein, explained Goodin (the antibodies attack the Ebola virus and neutralize it).
Then the Nicotiana benthamiana seeds are planted and allowed to grow for several weeks in a tightly-controlled facility that maintains optimal levels of light, temperature and humidity for the plant, according to an FAQ page on Mapp Biopharmaceutical's website.
Scientists then infect the plant with the engineered virus that contains the Ebola antibodies. After being allowed to grow even more, they’re harvested and processed to separate the antibodies from the rest of the plant. They're then purified, tested for potency and then made into the drug known as ZMapp.
The entire process takes several months, said Mapp Biopharmaceutical to the Associated Press -- and even then, they're only able to produce a small amount of the medicine.
After donating the few doses they had to health workers who had contracted Ebola, Mapp Biopharmaceutical says it has no more left to give away. But in a press release, they state that they are "cooperating with appropriate government agencies to increase production as quickly as possible.”
The pharmaceutical benefits of Nicotiana benthamiana are just beginning, said Goodin. In addition to ZMapp, a vaccine for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma has been made with the plant, and the possibilities are endless -- provided there is research funding, said Goodin.
He praised the $500 million fun that President Barack Obama has offered on behalf of the U.S. to help fight ebola, $58 million of it is going toward research to develop experimental treatments. Goodin hopes that at least some of it is headed to Kentucky, where Kentucky Bioprocessing is growing the special Ebola antibody-infected Nicotiana benthamiana.
“The development of these vaccines doesn't come cheaply (it's difficult research),” wrote Goodin in a follow up email. "Funding for research is being reduced greatly ... We (as a nation) need to raise funding levels."
While a spokeswoman for the FDA couldn’t give out specific details about ZMapp’s performance in trials or a timeline for release, she did say that all drugs have to go through a review process that includes human trials to test for side effects, trials on people who actually have the disease, and finally larger trials that test the drug on several hundred to several thousand infected people.
“Experimental drugs and vaccines for Ebola are in the earliest stages of development and have not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness,” wrote Stephanie Yao of the FDA in an email to HuffPost. “FDA is working with companies and other government agencies … to facilitate the manufacturing and development of investigational therapies for the treatment of Ebola.”
Goodin has no affiliation with Mapp Biopharmaceutical or its drug, ZMapp, but he specializes in plant viruses that happen to be genetically related to the Ebola virus. He says that while the current Ebola outbreak is unlike anything the world has experienced in recent history (Sierra Leone’s countrywide lockdown strategy has not been utilized since the Plague), emerging viruses regularly run rampant through other living things.
“The public is highly shielded from the wars against viruses, but it’s not unusual that a virus like Ebola takes off like this,” said Goodin. “It happens in all different types of plant and animal systems."
Take, for instance the porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) viruses that was expected to kill more than 5 million pigs back in February, or the Coffee Ringspot Virus that has shown up in Brazil -- home to almost 35 percent of the world’s coffee production. At last count, almost 5,000 people have contracted Ebola virus and about half of them are reported dead.
“[Ebola] is not just a problem for Western Africa, it’s a serious global issue,” Goodin concluded. "To contain these outbreaks as quickly as possible is of incredible importance; the whole world should be singularly focused on this issue."