Tobacco Plants Hold Key To Ebola Virus Cure ZMapp

By Brent McCluskey 10/10/14

With the recent death of Thomas Duncan in Texas, the need for the experimental drug has grown exponentially.

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The experimental drug ZMapp has been used to treat several Ebola-infected patients, and the key to its success lies in the use of tobacco plants.

Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, the company that developed the ZMapp vaccine, injects the leaves of tobacco plants with the genes that create the necessary antibodies to neutralize the Ebola virus. The tobacco plants in turn assimilate the genes and begin manufacturing the antibody. The leaf material is harvested once the plants begin turning yellow, a sign they are about to die from infection.

While this process is more effective than using antibodies harvested from mice, it is still time consuming and costly. It costs up to $100,000 to treat a single patient and takes approximately 78 tobacco plants and up to 10 days to harvest just one dose of the Ebola-curing antibodies. And as the Ebola virus continues to spread through West Africa, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals is finding themselves in short supply.

Yuri Gleba with Icon Genetics is working with Mapp Biopharmaceuticals to streamline the laborious process and hopes to lower the amount of required tobacco plants. “If everything is properly optimized, those plants can be full of that antibody,” said Gleba.

Aside from the painstaking harvesting process, lack of government funding is also to blame for the insufficient ZMapp supply. “They’re right now manufacturing additional lots,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dir., National Institutes of Health. “It probably won’t be ready now until maybe a month-and-a-half to two months.”

Other drug companies like Chimerix Inc., Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and BioCryst are researching different experimental antiviral drugs to treat Ebola, and the World Health Organization has also approved blood transfusions from an Ebola survivor.

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Brent McCluskey is a Social Media Editor at International Business Times as well as a Jedi with Sith tendencies.  He is also a reader of books, slayer of dragons, and level 80 mage.

“Yeah, I have a broad skill set. If I had to pick between being a Divergent or a wizard, I'd pick a wizard.”  His wizardness can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.