Biodesign research takes aim at deadly Ebola epidemic

Biodesign research takes aim at deadly Ebola epidemic

August 6, 2014

August 6, 2014

In the past two weeks, one of the planet’s most lethal pathogens has taken center stage.
 
The largest Ebola epidemic ever has swept through the West African states of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, infecting 1,600 people and killing 887, to date. The highly lethal, threadlike pathogen, or filovirus, has just arrived in Nigeria as well, with two recently reported cases and a fear of many more to come.  
 
According to Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, emergent diseases of such severity and capacity for devastation require radically new approaches.
 
“Here at Biodesign, we are focused on creating bio-inspired solutions to some of society’s most daunting challenges,” DuBois says. “The Institute’s path breaking work on deadly ebola is a classic case in point, pulling together diverse scientific domains to fundamentally change the research landscape and save lives.”
 
DuBois is referring to research carried out by Charles Arntzen, a plant biologist and founding director of the Biodesign Institute. In a far-sighted study in 2011, Arntzen presented an elegantly designed, plant-based vaccine, capable of blocking transmission of ebola.
 
In an unusual twist, tobacco plants—a longstanding scourge to human health—were used in conjunction with animal-derived antibodies, producing a powerful vaccine and turning tobacco from killer to cure.
 
“This is a vital new terrain in infectious disease research,” DuBois says.  “Not many people would think of tobacco and life saving experimental treatments in the same sentence.”
 
In his trailblazing study, Arntzen demonstrated that the plant-based vaccine’s impressive 80 percent effectiveness against ebola infection, when tested in mice. Results appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
 
Arntzen points to encouraging signs that such a vaccine could work in humans as well, significantly reducing the disease burden in the developing world and blocking viral spread to other parts of the globe, including the U.S. In addition to detailing the formulation of the vaccine, the study outlines steps needed for a post-exposure therapeutic.
 
In an all-but-unprecedented case, a radical new therapy, (never before tested in any human), was given to patients to treat the disease, for which no current human vaccine exists. Two Ebola infected health care workers. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who were gravely ill, have made miraculous improvements after being given an experimental treatment. They were rushed to the U.S. from Africa to continue their recovery.
 
MAPP Biopharmaceuticals, which collaborated with Arntzen on the original study, produced the drug cocktail now being tested.
 
The Ebola virus is feared not only for its unusually high mortality rate, but also for the nightmarish constellation of symptoms associated with it. The virus produces hemorrhagic fever, causing severe bleeding from every bodily orifice, dissolving of internal organs and complete system collapse. It is extremely contagious, posing severe risk to physicians and other heath care specialists. 
 
Positive results of the new drug could pave the way for rapid development of enough doses to thwart the raging West African epidemic. Arntzen emphasizes the versatility of his plant-based model, which could enable researchers to ramp up production, and stockpile doses within a couple of month’s time.
 
“While saving lives is the goal of so much of the research we do, to actually see it in action in real time is a very special moment for us,” Arntzen said.
 
The plant-based therapeutic and preventive vaccine for Ebola are only the latest bursts of innovative thinking to emerge from the Biodesign Institute—a life science powerhouse dedicated to applying nature’s design principles to deliver fundamental advances for the benefit of present and future generations. 

 

Written by: Joe Caspermeyer