Tobacco plant may be key to Ebola drugs
(CNN) - As Thomas Eric Duncan remains in isolation at a hospital in Dallas, and American journalist Ashoka Mukpo prepares to be transported home, many are wondering: Will they receive an experimental drug like other Ebola patients treated in the United States?
Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol received an experimental serum called ZMapp, engineered from antibodies harvested in mice. Questions remain about the extent to which ZMapp was responsible for the patients' recovery, but demand for the drug has skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, the process used to make the doses given to Brantly, Writebol and a few other patients is costly and time-consuming. Public health officials are now looking for ways to develop more of this experimental drug quickly.
Tobacco plants may hold the key.
In the world of health and medicine, the word tobacco usually brings to mind cancer, emphysema and heart disease. But in recent years the plant's tarnished reputation is getting a makeover from the development of pharmaceuticals through an effective, swift and cost-cutting technique that has been dubbed "biopharming."
Tobacco plant-based drugs are not a new concept. But there are no treatments currently developed through tobacco plants that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. That may change as the deadly Ebola virus continues to spread through West Africa, where it has killed more than 3,300.
Kentucky BioProcessing in Owensboro was one of the first biopharmaceutical companies tasked with developing the ZMapp serum through tobacco plants. The company has been working in collaboration with San Diego-based Mapp Biophamaceutical, which developed the ZMapp vaccine, since August.
Eyes have also turned to Texas-based biotechnology company Caliber Biotherapeutics, which that same month claimed it was ready to fast-track the drug if need be. The company, which says it operates the largest tobacco-based pharmaceutical facility in the world, has been working on cutting costs and increasing quantities of certain cancer drugs through genetically modified tobacco.
Drugs and vaccines are manufactured in a variety of ways. Flu vaccines, for example, are most commonly produced by injecting fertilized hen eggs with the virus. The virus is incubated for days so it can replicate, be harvested, inactivated or weakened, and then made into either a flu shot or nasal spray.
The process can cost around $150 million each year, using $600,000 eggs each day. Tobacco plants can produce antibodies in much less time for a fraction of the cost, advocates say.