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article imageA new use for tobacco: Fighting Ebola

By Karen Graham     Aug 6, 2014 in Health
Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. is a small company, employing nine people, but it may have made medical history last week when they released their experimental drug, ZMapp, which had only been tested on animals, for use on the two U.S. Ebola patients.
A subsidiary of tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc. (RAI), Kentucky BioProcessing LLC (KBP), of Owensboro, Kentucky manufactures the treatment for Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. from tobacco plants. The background story leading to this novel approach using the tobacco plant could evolve into a fast and inexpensive way to produce future therapies using biotechnology.
This treatment, never tried on a human before, was given to Dr. Kent Brantly and health-care worker Nancy Writebol while they were still in Liberia. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said each patient received at least one dose of ZMapp in Liberia before coming to the U.S.
A mutual effort between the U.S. Army and a tobacco giant
The treatment with the "secret experimental" medication as the news media referred to it, was monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapy. Basically, it is a form of immunotherapy using monoclonal antibodies to target specific cells or proteins. This should stimulate the patients immune system to attack those cells. In the case of the Ebola virus circulating in a patient's body, the immune system, having been stimulated, will attack and engulf the virus cells.
You may be asking, What is a monoclonal antibody (mAb)? The monoclonal antibody is a monospecific antibody. The monospecific antibodies all have an affinity, or liking, for the same antigen. This means that mAbs are all identical immune cells, or clones of the same parent cell (germ cell).
Immunotherapy using biotechnology is relatively new. But so too is immunotherapy. Immunotherapy was first introduced to the medical world by Dr. Paul Ehrlich at the beginning of the 20th century. He envisioned a "magic bullet," or a compound made to specifically target a particular disease-causing organism.
ZMapp is a mixture of three "humanized" mouse monoclonal antibodies. One of the mAbs was developed at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). KBP, a subsidiary of Reynolds America, manufactured the mAbs using tobacco plants. The resulting antibodies extracted from the tobacco were dubbed "plantibodies." They attach themselves to the Ebola virus and inactivate them.
In genetic engineering, DNA is injected into a bacteria, and the bacteria produce a protein used to fight disease. Another way to do this, called "pharming," uses plants instead of bacteria. The common tobacco plant, Nicotiana benthanmianas was used to create ZMapp. A gene is first inserted into a virus, and the virus is then used to infect the tobacco plants. KBP was then able to target the proteins, extract them, purify them and create the compound, ZMapp.”
While the process may sound simple, it is much more involved. In the case of the actual product, ZMapp, Mapp President Larry Zeitlin says it is a combination of two agents. One of them is MB-003. It gave 100 percent protection to monkeys when it was given right after exposure to Ebola virus, and even helped after symptoms developed.
The other agent, ZMAb, is a combination drug that provided 100 percent survival in primates one day after exposure and 50 percent survival after two days. Reynolds American spokesman David Howard said tobacco was the perfect plant for producing disease-fighting antibodies because of its “natural rapid-growth properties” that offer “a faster, more-efficient and less-expensive way to deliver pharmaceutical protein products versus man-made bioreactors."
The future of ZMapp
Even though the drug has only been produced in small quantities, there are still questions regarding making it available to the hundreds of people infected with Ebola while ZMapp is essentially untested. “We want to have a huge impact on the Ebola outbreak,” Mapp CEO Kevin Whaley said in an interview at company headquarters in San Diego. "We would love to play a bigger role.”
Howard says the tobacco plants grow quickly, and "it takes only about a week (after the genes are introduced) before you can begin extracting the protein." But the FDA still has to approve the manufacturing process as well the extraction process. It will take some time, but hopefully, with Congress backing an Ebola agenda, things will start to happen. Ebola is a dread disease, and for many, a death sentence. And what better use for tobacco, a much maligned product over the years. Perhaps it does has some redeeming value.
More about tobacco plant, ZMapp drug, biotechnology treatments, monoclonal antibodies, Reynolds American
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