Mapp Bio’s Ebola Drug Shows Promise, But Making More Will Take Time

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little-known drug set off a media frenzy, with some news reports referring to ZMapp as a “secret serum.”

Mapp Bio, founded in 2003 by longtime colleagues Kevin Whaley and Larry Zeitlin, has just nine employees and has been funded solely by government grants and contracts. Zeitlin told The New York Times’ Andy Pollock earlier this month the urgency of the global health crisis has been “absolutely overwhelming.” They have been working to make the drug available to people as quickly and safely as possible, and are avoiding the limelight by limiting their public comments to terse, occasional statements posted on Mapp Bio’s website.

The antibody constituents used to make ZMapp have been known for years, Saphire said.

ZMapp combines  monoclonal antibodies (blue, green, yellow) that bind to surface of Ebola virus (courtesy TSRI)

ZMapp combines monoclonal antibodies (blue, green, yellow) that bind to surface of Ebola virus (courtesy TSRI)

Each monoclonal antibody binds to a different site on the surface protein of the thread-like Ebola virus, which replicates by attaching itself to the surface of human cells and seizing control. By combining the three antibodies in an optimized formulation, Saphire says ZMapp both neutralizes the virus and alters the immune system to mount its own defenses.

However, the formulation of constituents that became ZMapp was identified for the first time in January, according Mapp Bio. The work has not even been reported in the scientific literature yet, Saphire said.

While the drug was being advanced for medical use, Saphire said scientists working with Ebola kept tabs on what was out there, should it ever be needed—including “that inevitable moment when someone sticks themselves with a needle” tainted with Ebola. She indicated that at the beginning of the year, the scientists at Mapp Bio and Defyrus, a bio-defense company in Toronto, expected to produce what was needed more or less on their own schedule, as the R&D community needed it.

By the time world health authorities realized they were dealing with an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, ZMapp had only been tested in monkeys that had been deliberately infected with lethal doses of the virus. Mapp Bio, through its collaboration with Defyrus and LeafBio, a San Diego commercialization partner, had a limited batch of the drug—apparently enough to treat only a handful of people, according to The New York Times.

“They’ll have to grow another greenhouse full of tobacco plants to make more ZMapp,” Saphire said. Monoclonal antibodies also can be produced in algae and tissue culture, she said, but that would take time too.

While several experimental drugs are … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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One response to “Mapp’s Ebola Drug Shows Promise, But Making More Will Take Time”

  1. In my little antibody company, with just two 4 liter spinner flasks, I can make 1 gram of each of these antibodies in about 10 days. Making large amounts of these recombinant antibodies cannot possibly be the problem. How many patients could I treat with 1 gram of each of these antibodies using such a minimal effort?