ASU Professor Named Most Creative Person

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Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Charles Arntzen, from the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, has been named the most creative person of 2015 by “Fast Company,” a magazine that has a focus on technology, ethical economics and leadership. Arntzen was honored for developing ZMapp, a serum to treat Ebola he genetically engineered from tobacco plants. Arntzen will talk about his award and research.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," we'll hear from an ASU professor named by one publication as the most creative person of the year.

And we'll hear why the state game and fish commission is opposed to a new federal monument in Arizona. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The U.S. Supreme Court today refused an attempt to reinstate an Arizona law that denies bail to undocumented immigrants charged with certain crimes. The decision leaves in place a lower court ruling that struck down the voter-approved law.

And the city of Phoenix today filed suit against the FAA over flight path changes that the city says are causing, quote, "extreme discomfort to residents who can't sleep at night or pursue normal daily activities." The city also says that the FAA has ignored reasonable solutions to the problem. The FAA claims that the new flight paths improve safety.

ASU regents' professor Charles Arntzen has been named the most creative person of 2015 by "Fast Company," a magazine that focuses on technology, ethical economics and leadership. Arntzen was honored for developing a genetically engineered serum to threat the Ebola virus. Here now is Charles Arntzen. Congratulations!

CHARLES ARNTZEN: Thank you very much. Nice to be with you.

TED SIMONS: Nice to see you back here again. Good to see you. Thoughts on this award?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: Well, it came as a real surprise. This company is sort of a techy magazine, a lot of social media sort of things, and it's not a crowd that I usually hang around with. I go to scientific meetings. I mean, I'm not trying to make them sound boring but it's a bunch of biochemists or geneticists or pharmaceutical development people and we deal with different things.

TED SIMONS: Well, they certainly want to deal with you because you are honored for developing ZMapp, this genetically engineered treatment vaccine for Ebola. What is this all about?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: What they awarded me for was starting this idea of "pharming," that's with a P-H, meaning pharmaceutical manufacturing, using plants like tobacco. And we took that approach back in 2002 with exploratory things, trying to find new strategies for preventing or treating diseases like Ebola. And it took us about 12 years before anyone, other than the U.S. military who was funding us, nobody else really paid any attention and, all of a sudden, the Ebola epidemic of 2014 came along. We were -- I was delighted because I actually didn't know it was going to be tested in Africa, but collaborators that we work with contacted me and said watch the news, because two missionaries have been treated, the two missionaries both recovered, just from death's bed, and were walking out of the hospital within a day or two and came back to the U.S. It was a validation of this idea that we have been pushing for more than a decade that we can use plants like tobacco to produce a novel, new set of therapeutics, in this case antibodies, to treat disease.

TED SIMONS: Let's get into this. How exactly does this work? What do you do with the tobacco, what are you looking for? How long does it take? Give us the background on what's going on.

CHARLES ARNTZEN: Okay. Well, in this 10 years we're developing it, the techniques have evolved but essentially, it's a field that we call today synthetic biology. In our case, we take viruses that infect plants, infect tobacco specifically, and we take --

TED SIMONS: Stop right there. Why tobacco specifically?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: Well, tobacco is a crop that grows very quickly. Actually, it has been a very high-value and use crop so genetics of tobacco was done to make sure that the farmers in Connecticut and Kentucky and other places get a crop that is perfect. If you're going to make a cigar wrapper, you want an absolutely perfect leaf. So there's a lot of genetics in the crop. It grows quickly, and in our case, we're blessed by so many viruses that can infect that plant. We now work with the viruses and take elements out of them, combining their genomes or their genetic information from different viruses, putting it back together but including genes for something we want, like a vaccine or an antibody.

TED SIMONS: So you infect the plant with the virus, antibodies show up, you collect the antibodies from the plant?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: So we infect the plant with the synthetic virus. The virus takes over the cells in the leaf, and the plant is in a death spiral because the virus is consuming all the amino acids to make the proteins we want. But before it completes the killing of the plant, we take the leaves off, grind them up, make sort of something that looks like a vegetable shake you will get in the grocery store but then use centrifugation and column chromatography and from that tobacco juice we purify the proteins that we want and in the case of Ebola, these are proteins that are injected directly into the bloodstream to bind and destroy the Ebola virus.

TED SIMONS: Interesting. Now, this is pharming, why you were honored, for pharming in this particular effort. Can pharming be used for other diseases, other conditions?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: It can be and it is being explored. There's a company in Israel that's using plants in that case carrot cells to make a drug to treat a genetic disease. There's another group developing a cancer vaccine using tobacco plants. So it's sort of an unlimited array of uses as long as you've got a drug, which is a protein, because we can manufacture these proteins in tobacco.

TED SIMONS: What got you started in all of this?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: I was in Texas medical center in Houston nearly 25 years ago. My expertise was genetic engineering of crop plants, like insect resistance. I knew how to take a gene from a bacterium, for example, and put it in a soybean plant or a corn plant. I was starting a new institute in the Texas medical center and I wanted something I could do that would build upon my skill set and just at that time, the world health organization was calling for new technology for vaccines for the developing world. Something that would be less costly, a technology that could be used directly in oh, say South Africa or India or anyplace else. I knew all the new vaccines were coming out as purified proteins and I said let's put this together and take a skill set I had but make something totally new. Forget about helping the cotton farmer. We're going to try to help children by preventing disease.

TED SIMSON: And basically, it sounds to me like a tobacco plant is a guinea pig of sorts.

CHARLES ARNTZEN: It is, sort of a lab rat or yeah. Tobacco is really a facile plant for making all sorts of things and one nice thing is nobody cares about tobacco. They're not bothered by what we do to it.

TED SIMONS: No protests outside.

CHARLES ARNTZEN: I haven't seen anything yet.

TED SIMONS: As far as what you're working on now, what are you working on now?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: My major focus right now is on a vaccine to prevent travelers disease or stomach diarrhea, it's caused by norovirus, a particular type of virus. We get it, epidemic, every December through March in the northern hemisphere, sweeps across the U.S. It gets written up in the paper. It doesn't cause very many fatalities, except in the very young and the very old. But it's a terribly inconvenient disease because it puts you out of action for 48 hours. Kids have to get home from school, etc. So there's a market demand for this vaccine. But in order to be useful, it's probably going to have to be an oral vaccine and quite inexpensive and we think the technology we're developing using tobacco is going to solve both of these problems. Get something that's inexpensive and could be used maybe once every other year.

TED SIMONS: I get infecting the plants with the virus, of waiting for the antibodies and then collecting the antibodies and going from there. Why can't you do that in an afternoon?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: All that is not quite an afternoon but we can do it in a couple of months. What is slow then is the testing, because by law, the FDA requires that it has to be tested in animals first and ultimately be approved to be tested in humans. That's when it gets slow and expensive. So I've been trying to get this vaccine into human clinical trials now for a couple of years and there's a number of barriers. Biggest one is dollar signs.

TED SIMONS: Interesting. Before you go, you were honored for being the most creative person of 2015. Do you ever think about, sit back and think about the creative process in what you do?

CHARLES ARNTZEN: I've said this to so many people. My idea of being creative is just working with people that I know are smarter than I am and just listening to them and putting together all these brilliant thoughts and if anything, I'm sort of a cheerleader that can get people to work together and go in a direction that's useful.

TED SIMONS: Well, congratulations on this award. You deserve a bunch of others considering that Ebola vaccine. That was quite the vaccine and quite the effort there. Congratulations and thanks for joining us again.

CHARLES ARNTZEN: Thank you very much, good to see you again.

Charles Arntzen:Arizona State University Regents' Professor

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