Biotechnology / Health

Johns Hopkins’ role in building experimental Ebola treatment ZMapp

The scientists who created ZMapp previously worked in the lab of a JHU biophysicist.

Extracting antibodies from a Nicotiana benthamiana tobacco plant. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

As Ebola rages through West Africa, Baltimore-based University of Maryland School of Medicine and Profectus Biosciences have each had their respective roles in speeding vaccines that could help curb the epidemic.
Last week, Johns Hopkins University touted its role in developing previously-elusive Ebola treatments, too.
ZMapp, which became the first much-talked-about Ebola treatment in August, has roots at the lab of Hopkins biophysicist Richard Cone, according to the JHU Hub. Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s Larry Zeitlin and Kevin Whaley, left JHU to form startups in California in 1999, and founded their current company in 2003. They said were inspired by Cone’s motivation to tackle “big public health problems.”

ZMapp is not really the story. The real story is about antibodies and how diverse they are.

ZMapp was developed by manufacturing antibodies from tobacco plants. Plantibodies, as experimental drugs like ZMapp are known, still largely haven’t received regulatory approval. Its effect on Ebola patients isn’t entirely known. Two U.S. pateints who were given the drug over the summer ultimately survived the disease, but a Maryland surgeon who was treated with ZMapp last month did not survive. Nevertheless, the U.S. government has asked labs to prepare to manufacture the drug as they seek to curb Ebola.
ZMapp vaulted Mapp Biopharmaceutical from obscurity. Its founders are hoping it will do the same for plantibodies.
“ZMapp is not really the story,” Whaley told the Hub. “The real story is about antibodies and how diverse they are. ZMapp shows the power of antibody-based technology, and that’s the exciting thing to us. They work; they are effective.”
Ebola, on the other hand, continues to be the story in West Africa and beyond. The disease has killed more than 6,300 people. Sierra Leone reported a big uptick, with nearly 400 new cases last week — that’s nearly three times as many as Guinea and Liberia combined. A volunteer American nurse who was exposed to the disease in Sierra Leone arrived at the National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda last Thursday, signaling the disease will continue to hit home until it is stopped.

Companies: Profectus Biosciences / University of Maryland / Bio-Rad Laboratories

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