ASU Ebola Virus Research

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An experimental treatment for the Ebola virus has been developed by an Arizona State University researcher. Charles Arntzen will discuss his work on a tobacco-derived drug being used to treat two Ebola virus patients flown to the U.S. for treatment.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Two American health care workers who contracted the ebola virus in Africa are being treated with an experimental drug developed from research at ASU. Here now is the man conducting that research, Charles Arntzen of ASU's Biodesign Institute. This is a great story, told a little bit now, but let's get to the basics here. When did you hear your work was being used?

Charles Arntzen: I got a call and then an email last week, I think it was Tuesday, from Larry Zeitland, the President of a little company in San Diego called Mapp. He called me and said, have you seen the news about the ebola treatment? You know that's the same cocktail we've written up this paper about, and I'm involved in helping him get this scientific background published. I went on the website and saw what was going on and immediately sent notes back to him. Wow, congratulations, that's -- you can draw a straight line from stuff you've done to saving two lives, at least it looks like it. Now, you give me credit, I appreciate the credit. My skill set is in making plants produce some proteins.

Charles Arntzen: Larry Zeitland and his colleague at Mapp and other colleagues are the antibiotic gurus. They know how to engineer an antibody so it does really good things. We were involved in writing up a grant proposal to the Army. We said, let's use plants -- I'll come back to that -- let's use plants to make both a vaccine and a therapeutic antibody to treat ebola. We had known each other for a long team, interested in global public health. From a corporate standpoint these guys at Mapp really aren't driven by return on investment because they don't have any investors. They have never taken venture capital money, they are driven by scientific returns intellectually stimulating things.

Ted Simons: You mentioned you had a relationship since the early 2000s. You got the phone call, did it startle you a little bit? Take you in a different direction?

Charles Arntzen: I know these guys pretty well and they are often pulling my chain about something. I wasn't really sure this was on the up and up. Once I checked the website and saw the video footage and everything else -- Larry and Kevin have both been adjunct faculty with us at the Biodesign Institute for years now,so we know these guys very well.

Ted Simons: Is this the first time it's been used on humans?

Charles Arntzen: It's definitely the first time in humans. The particular batch sent over to Africa had been prepared in Kentucky by this little company there. It was supposed to go into animal testing because the way we prove that a drug is good is to infect monkeys with ebola and then test the drug. Somebody in their wisdom, somebody in government made the decision, stop that stuff from going to the monkey labs, send it to Africa. It just seems like the stars were aligned. It got there in time and the two people who received the experimental drug were both knowledgeable about ebola, knew medicine, and they were still -- they hadn't succumbed to the disease to the point that they could still talk about it and they were able to give informed consent, which is critical. You can't just give an untested drug to people. They said they had a pretty good likelihood they were going to die. If we've got something, let's give it a try, give it a shot, which it literally was. We can't say for sure yet it was the drug that did it but, you know, it works on those two people just like it had worked on monkeys in the previous tests.

Ted Simons: I was wondering how much it worked on mice and monkeys. Did it work well? It had to work well enough to where you felt some sort of confidence.

Charles Arntzen: It wasn't my decision about it.

Ted Simons: Right.

Charles Arntzen: But I've been involved enough so that I understand what was going on.

Charles Arntzen: When the first batch of these antibodies was made jointly, we joined forces, ASU and Mapp. Some of the first antibiotics could barely protect a mouse model from ebola. That's sort of the weakest challenge you can have. The guys kept engineering antibiotics, making them better and better. In parallel, this company in Kentucky had been working on the tobacco plant, essentially genetically designing it so when it makes an antibiotic, it's virtually identical to an antibiotic that would come from you or me. If we took a vial of the stuff sent to Africa, you'd have to be a really darn good biochemist to say that's one from people and that's one from plants.

Ted Simons: I know your specialty is plant-based research and stuff. What got you going on tobacco? What did you find when you were looking at tobacco? This company must have liked what you found. They all of a sudden became good buds.

Charles Arntzen: We've had this mission, all of us, of trying to do something for global public health. And we have wonderful drugs in this country, but other antibiotic drugs used today would be cancer drugs like hercept and et cetera. If you need those drugs they are going to cost you or your insurance company tens of thousands, probably $75,000, $80,000 for a course of treatment. There's a whole bunch of people who need these protein drugs out all around the world. We figured the only way to get the cost down is start to come up with a manufacturing system that's much less expensive. And growing plants in greenhouses is significantly less costly than building a building with big stainless steel fermenters and control processes and et cetera. We were a little naive as academics would be. It's not going to be dirt cheap, but we do have a new manufacturing system. In this particular case the advantage was we could move much more rapidly putting genes into a tobacco plant than, say, Merck could have done if they were putting genes into cells to go into their big fermenters, it's.

Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting. You've got an arm of Reynolds Tobacco involved with this?

Charles Arntzen: The research company set up in Owensboro, Kentucky, a couple of their scientists are adjunct appointments with us at ASU. They had taken their company to a point they had a great skillset. Reynolds approached the people, a little company in Kentucky and said, We've got a lot of skills in tobacco. We believe that we can make money on tobacco doing other things than smoking it. Let's combine our skill sets. They have, and now we've got a company with incredible manufacturing capacity.

Ted Simons: We've run out of time, this is absolutely fascinating. Is tobacco a particular plan that's more amenable to this sort of thing? Or are you working with other plants and seeing similar results.

Charles Arntzen: We've narrowed it down. Two reasons maintain. It's genetically selected so it's got traits that make protein production unique. The other thing is we use plant viruses to do our genetic engineering. And tobacco has a whole bunch of viruses that are infected. We've got a toolbox of viruses to put genes in and take genes out and infect the tobacco plant. My role now is just to be a cheerleader and conduct the orchestra here and say, put these things together and it makes the view beautiful.

Ted Simons: You must have been beautiful when you heard about those folks being treated so far successfully.

Charles Arntzen: Congratulations to the 100-plus people and those being treated so far.

Charles Arntzen:Regents' Professor, Arizona State University;

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