Optimistic moments have been rare during this year's Ebola outbreak, which has now claimed more than 4,000 people. But experimental treatment ZMapp has been a beacon of hope amid the darkness, likely contributing to the recovery of several patients. Now its makers, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, are focusing on making more ZMapp, dropping other projects and pouring all of their energy into the experimental treatment.
In August, American health workers Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were both cured of Ebola after being given a combination of experimental treatments, one of which was ZMapp. Though it can't be determined what ZMapp's exact role was in their recovery, or how much it contributed, it's been used as an emergency measure because there are no approved drugs or treatments. But studies have found that the drug has a 100-percent success rate in monkeys, which, coupled with its possible role in curing human patients, has put ZMapp on the radar.
Since the success of Brantly and Writebol, the once-unknown San Diego company has been focused on producing more ZMapp. But they're a small establishment, and the drug is still in its nascent stages — months away from clinical trials — and so the current inventory has been depleted. Now Mapp Biopharmaceutical is changing things up to speed up production, and luckily, many agencies and outside parties, understanding the urgency of producing more ZMapp, have signed on to help the pharmaceutical company.
How ZMapp Is Changing Its Process
Mapp Biopharmaceutical has put all other projects on hold at its 32,000-square-foot facility in Kentucky to focus on ZMapp production, while also streamlining the manufacturing process. The company has been testing to see whether smaller doses would still be efficient — smaller doses would increase the number of treatments per patient.
The company is also assessing whether they should move from its current plant-based manufacturing to more traditional biotech methods, which could produce larger quantities of the drug in the long run.
The federal government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority has funded Mapp Biopharmaceutical with $24.9 million for an 18-month contract to develop ZMapp. The government is also helping the company to obtain an additional facility affiliated with the Texas A&M Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing.
For long-term production, the company will explore the use of, strangely, Chinese hamster ovary cells, which is a known method of producing antibodies. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped to pair MAPP Biopharmaceutical with a partner pharmaceutical company to look into that alternative method.
How Is ZMapp Made, Anyway?
Currently, MAPP Biopharmaceutical uses genetically modified tobacco plants to produce antibodies, which occurs when a genetically engineered virus is injected into the plant. Once the plant starts dying from the virus and turns yellow, the scientists at the Kentucky facility harvest the leaves. The antibodies are then humanized, cloned, purified, and distributed into doses. When administered to a human, these antibodies attach to Ebola cells and destroy them.
How Much Longer Before More ZMapp?
Right now, it's hard to say, unfortunately. But with the company, and outsiders, pouring funding, resources, and efforts into producing the drug, some experts are hoping that more ZMapp could become available by December.
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