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Origins Of Ebola Treatment Has Roots At ASU

(Photo courtesy of ASU)
Tobacco leaves at the ASU lab. The left leaf is infected by a virus.

While the Ebola virus continues to spread in Western Africa, a seemingly effective treatment has origins from Arizona State University. Plant research is at the root of the experimental treatment being used on two American doctors infected with the Ebola virus. The research was done through ASU’s Biodesign Institute and was funded through a grant from the U.S. Military.

Led by Charles Arntzen, the ASU lab has been researching antibodies developed in plants, specifically tobacco. They subject the plants to manipulated viruses to then develop antibodies against targeted viruses, such as Ebola. From there they have partner with two biomedical companies to take the research and turn it into a commercially viable treatment.

“We do the background if you will, the technology development," Arntzen said. "We’re making a blueprint and a set of reagents that go with that blueprint. We also develop tools for purifying the final protein product. And then they push it forward into something that finally goes into people.”

Arntzen uses the tobacco plant for a few preferred reasons, such as genetically modifying a non-food crop, tobacco’s attraction to a number of viruses and the crop’s ability to grow quickly in high yields. The next batch of the treatment being developed was destined to be tested on monkeys, but in light of the recent Ebola outbreak, that didn’t happen.

“Somebody was a risk taker and said look, even though this drug is still experimental, I think we should ship it to Africa and, under compassionate use, try it on these two sick doctors,” Arntzen said.

Other treatments derived from plants are continuing to be researched, such as a vaccine against West Nile Virus.

Andrew Bernier was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2014 to 2016.