GMO tobacco ‘mystery serum’ rescues Ebola virus victims

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Genetically engineered tobacco plants produce an experimental Ebola serum (Credit: CS Prakash via Twitter) Genetically engineered tobacco plants produce an experimental Ebola serum (Credit: CS Prakash via Twitter)

Genetic modification—biotechnology vilified in some quarters as a violation of nature–has proved key in saving the lives of two Americans infected by the deadly Ebola virus.

When American Ebola patient Dr. Kent Brantly arrived in Atlanta, Georgia, Aug. 2, he had reportedly already had one course of treatment with an experimental drug called ZMAPP made with genetically engineered tobacco. Although it has only been tested previously in animals, the FDA is rumored to have authorized emergency approval for the drug for Brantly and another American who contracted the virus doing medical aid work in Liberia during the ongoing West African Ebola outbreak.

MAPP is produced by a small San Diego-based biotech company. The scientists use a common tobacco bacteria, genetically engineered with different components of the Ebola virus, to infect a large number of plants. The infection spurs the plants to make antibodies to the virus, including the pieces of viral Ebola DNA. The tobacco is then crushed up and the ebola serum is extracted. It contains antibodies that target several parts of the virus.

“What you want is a cocktail of antibodies that target different domains on the virus so escape is less likely in treatment,” said Heinz Feldmenn, chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Laboratory of Virology in Hamilton, Montana. Growing the genetically modified plants and refining the serum takes just five weeks, Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Kentucky company Kentucky BioProcessing contracts with MAPP to grow and refine the tobacco plants and is involved in studies targeting other infectious disease:

KBP also has been selected for work on some of the biggest health threats on the planet, including H1N1 vaccine production, an anti-rabies antibody, norovirus or the “cruise ship virus,” HIV prevention, parvovirus, and HPV vaccine.

Tobacco is a good organism to produce genetically engineered drugs because its relatively easy to infect the plants with altered bacteria, the plants’ immune systems react well and the plants are easy to grow in a relatively short time frame. Neither MAPP founders nor the FDA have publicly commented on the release of ZMAPP to the two  American Ebola patients, nor have they discussed accelerating testing of the drug to respond to the latest outbreak. Before its release in this case, the drug was undergoing testing on non-human primates.

Some have questioned the ethics of giving the serum to just the two Americans when more than a thousand Africans have contracted the virus:

While potentially saving lives, the cases raise questions about who should have the right to receive experimental drugs years before they gain FDA approval. “There are a lot of Africans that are also dying,” Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University, said in a telephone interview. “If we are going to do it for the Americans then we should certainly step up our game for the Africans.”

And as David Kroll pointed out Forbes, we don’t yet know if ZMAPP had any treatment affect for Brantly or if he was recovering from the infection on his own.

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  • Farnsworth

    OUTSTANDING.

  • Farnsworth

    “If we are going to do it for the Americans then we should certainly step up our game for the Africans.”
    So is he saying that the “Africans” should be guinea pigs???
    I really don’t have a problem with that, if it fails, they’ll make more replacement Africans.

    • Bennie ZooZoo

      but at the same time, we really dont have anything else for ebola and for many people with nothing to lose it would be a hail mary.

    • Elliander Eldridge

      I think the point is that if someone is going to die anyway (end stage) it really couldn’t hurt. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen?

      In other areas of medicine we have similar ethical issues. There is a cure for early stage Alzheimers disease, and it works 100% of the time, and we had the cure fr around a decade, but the delivery method caused fatal brain aneurysms in 2 out of 10 patients. In othet words you go under knowing that you will either be cured or never wake up at all. Personally, I would welcome that as would many others, but the FDA doesn’t agree so work is going into finding a safer delivery method while people who could be cured suffer a loss of their minds.

  • MEOW Date

    Why can’t the Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc share the basic data that led
    to the creation of ZMapp, with other research labs around the world?
    That way other countries can make their own decisions about how and when
    to use any serum they may or may not be able to manufacture in time.
    In Service to Community,
    Shira
    William-James-MEOWdate: 6 Aug. 12,014 H.E.

    • Sarah Silva

      Money!!!

      • MEOW Date

        I initially agreed with your answer, but now I am not so sure.
        Actumbra claims that profit is not a strong motive in this case, as
        there is no money in an Ebola cure. Obviously , it took me some time an
        distance to digest that, so I gave my apologies for the delay in
        replying. It makes me feel sad to have to admit that
        he or she might have been right. I agree wholeheartely that any good PR resulting from
        such an apparently altruistic cure would be well deserved, yes, and at
        least some money, perhaps. The problem is that since the Global North,
        in at least some part, created the problems in the Third World,the USA is
        collectively responsible (yes, even me, descended from slaves) for
        helping or giving back. No?
        Best Respects,
        Shira Destinie Jones Landrac, of THe MEOW CC Blog
        William-James-MEOW Date: 9 September, 12014 H.E. (Holocene Era)

      • MEOW Date

        I initially agreed with your answer, but now I am not so sure.
        Actumbra claims that profit is not a strong motive in this case, as
        there is no money in an Ebola cure. Obviously , it took me some time an
        distance to digest that, so I gave my apologies for the delay in
        replying. It makes me feel sad to have to admit that
        he or she might have been right. I agree wholeheartely that any good PR resulting from
        such an apparently altruistic cure would be well deserved, yes, and at
        least some money, perhaps. The problem is that since the Global North,
        in at least some part, created the problems in the Third World, the USA
        collectively responsible (yes, even me, descended from slaves) for
        helping or giving back. No?
        Best Respects,
        Shira Destinie Jones Landrac, of THe MEOW CC Blog
        William-James-MEOW Date: 9 September, 12014 H.E. (Holocene Era)

    • Antumbra

      It wouldn’t help even if they did that. Those companies would not be able to set up production fast enough, nor would they be able necessarily be allowed to violate whatever restrictions are in place. They have likely considered this, or at least asking for help with mass production – but it’s the very earliest stages of a delicate process.

      Additionally, if it fails it may be a media disaster – and of course not great for the infected – so far no major news network has (AFAIK) reported that the serum is a GM product. That will quickly change should it not work, and if it has been used on poor Africans… PR disaster for GM would be putting it mildly.

      Profit isn’t a strong motive as there is very little money in actually curing Ebola, it is primarily a disease that strikes in the Third World. The creation and emergency testing of a prototype cure is an act of mercy and self-risk by the creators and their supporting company. If it works, they really do deserve any money they might make or good publicity they might accrue.

      • MEOW Date

        Hmmm, it took me some time an distance to digest this. My apologies for the delay in replying. It makes me feel sad to have to admit that you are right. I agree wholeheartely that any good PR resulting from such an apparently altruistic cure would be well deserved, yes, and at least some money, perhaps. The problem is that since the Global North, in at least some part, created the problems in the Third World, we are collectively responsible (yes, even me, descended from slaves) for helping or giving back. No?
        Best Respects,
        Shira Destinie Jones Landrac, of THe MEOW CC Blog
        William-James-MEOW Date: 9 September, 12014 H.E. (Holocene Era)

        • Dar

          Correct me if I am wrong, but I’ve read that bats are the carriers of this deadly virus and that in Africa eating bats is what brought this virus into play for humans. We are not responsible for those in Africa anymore than they are responsible for us. Now, I am not saying we can’t help do what we can for fellow human beings, but this it’s not our fault whatsoever.

  • Nova

    Guinea pigs or not. Infected people have a death sentence over their heads. Any available window will be grabbed with both hands. I think there’s no harm in trying the Zmapp out and now because lives are being lost

  • Mark Glenn Keen

    “…common tobacco bacterium” What is that? Agrobacterium can be used to move DNA (antibody genes) into tobacco- but that makes it “common”?

  • Doug

    I wonder if they tried using blood transfusions from someone that had e-bola and the serum (partial anti-bodies), if the human body would create anti-bodies of it’s own in the same way we do with any other vaccine?