A treatment method that employs the tobacco plant could be effective as a "fast and cheap" Ebola therapy.
The treatment had previously only been tested on lab animals, but recently it was given to two American medical workers in Liberia, Reuters reported. The treatment is characterized by antibodies that bind and deactivate the dangerous virus.
Mapp Pharmaceuticals produced the therapy, dubbed ZMapp, by developing antibodies in tobacco plants at Kentucky Bioprocessing.
"Tobacco makes for a good vehicle to express the antibodies because it is inexpensive and it can produce a lot," Erica Ollmann Saphire, a professor at The Scripps Research Institute told Reuters. "It is grown in a greenhouse and you can manufacture kilograms of the materials. It is much less expensive than cell culture."
In standard genetic engineering DNA is injected into bacteria, causing the microbes to produce an Ebola-fighting protein. In a new approach, dubbed "pharming" a plant is used in place of the bacteria. In this method a gene is inserted into a virus, which the tobacco plant is then infected with. Cells infected with this virus start producing a protein that can fight Ebola; the leaves of the tobacco plants containing this protein can be harvested and purified.
As of right now the drug has only been produced in small quantities, but interest is rising towards using it as a widespread treatment.
"We want to have a huge impact on the Ebola outbreak," Mapp CEO Kevin Whaley said in an interview at company headquarters, Reuters reported. "We would love to play a bigger role."
So far no significant safety issues associated with the treatment have been identified, but the manufacturing process would have to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order for it to be distributed. The administration would have to be assured contamination would not be likely during the drug's extraction process.