Health & Medicine

UC Davis developing way to make Ebola drug

The National Science Foundation has awarded UC Davis a $200,000 “fast response” grant to develop a wide-scale production method for the experimental Ebola treatment ZMapp.

The ZMapp treatment is a cocktail of antibodies produced and extracted from whole tobacco plants. The drug is new, and it made news recently when it was given to two American health care workers who contracted Ebola while working in West Africa.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the drug may have allowed the two to recover from the disease, but conclusive evidence on whether it did so does not exist. The ZMapp treatment is so new that no clinical trials have been done on the treatment.

UC Davis is partnering with Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego to help scale up the creation of ZMapp.

ZMapp was developed by Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. in collaboration with the U.S. government and partners in Canada. The drug was made in limited quantity and ran out soon after it was administered to the two workers.

This year’s Ebola outbreak in western Africa has so far produced 12,861 laboratory confirmed cases. To date, the disease has killed 7,890 people, according to the CDC.

The university team was chosen for the grant because it owns patents related to the technology needed to make ZMapp on a larger scale.

“We’ll be using technology we developed at UC Davis back in the late 1990s,” said Raymond Rodriguez, professor of molecular cell biology at UC Davis and co-researcher on the team.

Back then, the impetus did not exist to develop the research the university had patented. This year’s Ebola outbreak changed that, he said.

“The world was caught completely off guard with this last Ebola outbreak,” said Rodriguez. “So, right now we’re playing catch up.”

“We need to take these outbreaks seriously and plan ahead and be proactive as opposed to reactive – which is what we were during this last outbreak,” he said.

Rodriguez said that the work done at UC Davis will likely create a foundation from which treatments to other viruses can be formulated in a rapid and affordable way.

“UC Davis has a record of performance on similar types of projects … so they were very likely to be successful during the current crisis,” said Theresa Good, deputy director with the National Science Foundation.

“It was important to us that UC Davis was using the same strain of organism to produce the antibodies, and that they had secured the DNA from which to make the antibodies,” said Good.

In particular, the UC Davis team will attempt to produce antibodies from plant cells grown outside of the whole tobacco plant. These will be produced using stainless steel fermentation vessels. That method is seen as the gold standard for producing antibodies.

Extracting the drug from whole plants is a more proven process for developing antibodies for viruses, but the ability to produce them quickly is limited.

Producing antibodies outside the plant will make it easier to manufacture ZMapp on a large scale, said Karen McDonald, professor in chemical engineering at UC Davis and lead researcher of the team.

“This is an effort to make the same product using a different production method that can be made in a higher capacity in the U.S and the world,” said McDonald.

McDonald said there are about half-dozen facilities in the world that can make ZMapp as it is being made currently.

More than a hundred facilities could make it using the method being developed at UC Davis, she said.

Call The Bee’s Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.