H/t to Ron for this really interesting story about the new Ebola treatment:
With the seemingly miraculous recovery of two American missionaries infected with the Ebola virus while treating patients in Liberia, ZMapp, the experimental drug that appears to have cured Dr. Kent Brantley and Nancy Writebol of the deadly disease, has rushed to the spotlight.
Aside from the highly unusual fact that it had only ever been tested on monkeys, ZMapp has another distinction that has drawn attention — it engineered in tobacco leaves in a process called biopharming.
While most FDA-approved drugs that involve antibodies, vaccines and other proteins are produced in animal cells farmed in expensive bioreactors, starting in the 1980s, scientists discovered they could also engineer proteins in plant cells.
As was the case with ZMapp, many companies settled on the tobacco plant as the ideal host for bioengineered proteins, because it grows so quickly and produces a high yield.
“It is not the same plant as the tobacco that is smoked,” explained Jean-Luc Martre, a spokesman for Medicago, a Quebec-based company jointly owned by Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma America and Phillip Morris International.
Rather, it’s a close cousin called nicotiana benthamiana, a plant native to Australia.
Medicago is using the nicotiana plant to create vaccines for seasonal and pandemic flu in its 97,000 square foot facility in North Carolina, both of which are undergoing clinical trials.
“We like to stay with the tobacco plant because it’s not a food crop,” said Chris Hall, chief technology officer of PlantForm, another Canadian company that is also using the tobacco plant to produce a plant-made version of a breast cancer drug that’s similar to Herceptin. “We grow it indoors, in a controlled environment, and we keep any genes from moving out into the environment.”
The technology is still relatively new, but ever since the late 1980s, a handful of biotech companies across the globe has been experimenting with using everything from tobacco leaves to alfalfa to corn kernels to engineer proteins for pharmaceuticals far faster and cheaper than in animal cells. The U.S. Department of Defense even got involved with an eye toward quickly and inexpensively ramping up production in the face of pandemic threats.