LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A Kentucky company used local tobacco to help produce an experimental serum to fight Ebola, which may help save two American aid workers stricken with the deadly disease.
David Howard, a spokesman for Reynolds American Services, said Owensboro-based Kentucky BioProcessing complied with a request from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and Samaritan’s Purse this week "to provide a limited amount" of the compound, called ZMapp.
Kentucky BioProcessing, which was acquired by North Carolina-based Reynolds American Inc. in January, does contract work for many clients, including ZMapp maker Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego.
Howard couldn’t confirm that the compound was used on the aid workers, and Emory officials didn’t respond by deadline to a call or email seeking confirmation. But The Associated Press, CNN and other media outlets reported that the aid workers have gotten the serum and have improved.
The fact that a Kentucky company focused on plant-based science played a part "is fantastic," said Kenneth Palmer, a University of Louisville professor who is involved in tobacco-based research in Owensboro but not in this project. "The more that (medicines) made in plants are used, the better the acceptance. … It gives tangible evidence of how what we do can be applied to help people."
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pointed out that ZMapp is not a proven treatment for Ebola but said it’s a good example of the intriguing science of growing medicines in tobacco plants.
"We’d love to see tobacco used for health," said Frieden, who was in Hazard, Ky., on Tuesday for a series of talks on health problems in Appalachia. But he added, "We don’t have proven treatments or vaccines against Ebola. … This Ebola outbreak is the biggest, worst, most complicated one that the world has ever seen."
Howard said tobacco helps in the production of ZMapp, acting like a "photocopier" to mass-produce proteins used to make the serum. Palmer said three, single-gene antibodies are put into trays of plants at Kentucky BioProcessing and replicate the antibodies after about 10 days.
Palmer likened it to antibodies being produced in the bodies of people or animals after an infection.
"What the plants are doing is pumping out the antibodies," Palmer said. "The plants are used to make the antibodies, and then they purify the antibodies."
"It’s faster than more traditional methods," Howard added. "It allows for rapid growth of proteins … on a reasonably large scale."
At the direction of Mapp, the Kentucky company developed a precursor to ZMapp, called MB-003, which was tested in non-human primates and showed good results, published last August in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Researchers said the treatment previously had been shown to protect all the primates when it was given an hour after exposure to Ebola, and two-thirds of them when given 48 hours after exposure.
‘We’d love to see tobacco used for health.’
Dr. Tom Frieden, director Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In the study published last year, researchers said, 43 percent of infected primates recovered after getting the treatment intravenously up to 120 hours after they were infected and had developed symptoms.
ZMapp was never tested in humans, but even before the latest Ebola outbreak, the companies had planned later this year to begin the federal process to get the drug approved, Howard said.
Meanwhile, tobacco plants also will be used to develop a gel to prevent the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. University of Louisville researchers announced this week they will lead the international effort, which is being funded by a five-year, $14.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The gel — designed to be used during sexual intercourse by people at risk for HIV — is developed using a synthetic copy of a protein found in red algae shown to act against HIV in the lab.
Research is also underway at Louisville using tobacco plants to produce a cheaper version of the vaccine against human papillomavirus, which causes most cervical cancer.
University of Louisville President James Ramsey said all of the tobacco-based research is exciting, particularly in a state where smoking kills at the highest rate in the nation.
"It is ironic," Ramsey said in an interview Tuesday. "We’ve been a tobacco state, and it’s been such a part of our economy, and it’s pretty amazing that they can take tobacco and potentially solve some of the biggest health problems around the world."
Laura Ungar also reports for The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal