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Local ZMapp Zaps Ebola
Art Olson | Avenida Primavera

3D printed model from the Olson Lab at TSRI of the Ebola virus protein (in white) targeted by ZMapp, three antibodies grown in tobacco plants. Structural data from Erica Ollmann-Saphire, TSRI. Photo by Art Olson.
Click on image to enlarge.

Del Mar appears to be worlds apart from the urgent public health crisis in West Africa caused by the worst-ever, still-spreading Ebola virus outbreak. Perhaps surprisingly, we in Del Mar happen to be in the midst of the evolving story of this terrible disease, whose fatality rate can approach 90%. ZMapp, the antibody cocktail that has been given to treat the two infected American healthcare workers recently flown back to the U.S. as well as several West African health care workers, was developed by two scientists with close ties to our community. Drs. Kevin Whaley and Larry Zeitlin are the CEO and President, respectively, of Mapp Biopharmaceutical (MappBio), the small biotech company that has produced ZMapp.

Back in the 1990s, Whaley and Zeitlin were two scientists, with a strong interest and background in public health, working at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. They were researching the use of human antibodies for the prevention of infectious diseases and unwanted pregnancy, but they needed a manufacturing system that was appropriate for large, cost-sensitive markets. They were aware of work initiated by Drs. Andrew Hiatt and Mich Hein then at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) on plant-based antibodies, and in 2000 decided to join them at Epicyte, a biotech company that Hiatt and Hein founded in San Diego. As Whaley tells it, they came out west and drove down the coast looking for a nice place to live. When they reached Del Mar they knew that it had to be their new home. Larry, Kevin and Leslie Robson rented a house together a block from the bluffs that overlook the beach. Today Kevin and Leslie still make their home on that property, and still love living in Del Mar. Leslie is now on the Board of the Farmer’s Market. She and Kevin can be seen most mornings walking their flat-coated retriever, Zum See, on the beach.

MappBio was started in 2003 by Whaley and Zeitlin to develop antibody-based products to address problems of global health. MappBio is a small company with nine employees that is principally funded by grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense to develop products for global health diseases that are often overlooked by the drug industry. The company participates in several large consortia with academic research institutions, including one led by Prof. Erica Ollmann-Saphire, an Ebola researcher at TSRI. The technology involves infecting plants, such as Nicotiana, with a plant virus (called a “vector”) that has been modified to contain the genetic material of human antibodies selected to target the disease causing virus -- in the case of ZMapp, Ebola virus. The plant virus multiplies and spreads in the plant and the plant produces the human antibodies that target Ebola. The process of antibody production takes only about 10 days.

ZMapp has been provided to infected individuals, but supplies are now exhausted. MappBio is currently working hard with collaborators at Kentucky BioProcessing to scale up production of ZMapp, for compassionate use in the West African outbreak. We all hope that ZMapp, and other technologies, will prove effective in treating those infected with Ebola, and we in Del Mar are certainly proud to have such caring and effective scientists in our midst.



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