Feds rally behind Mapp as Ebola spreads, but production remains a challenge

Ebolavirus under an electron microscope--Courtesy of CDC

A novel treatment made by tiny Mapp Biopharmaceutical may be the key to beating back West Africa's Ebola outbreak, but despite the support of the U.S. government and some of the world's largest charities, producing enough to counter the spread will be difficult.

As The New York Times reports, the Department of Health and Human Services is on a mission to ramp up production of ZMapp, the company's cocktail of antibodies derived from tobacco plants. Mapp's drug is widely considered to be the most promising and advanced among in-development Ebola treatments, as 5 of the 7 people who received it survived their infections, and the injection charted a 100% success rate in a small primate trial disclosed in August.

Now the feds, alongside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, are taking an all-hands approach to generating more doses of ZMapp.

DHS is in advanced discussions with manufacturer Caliber Biotherapeutics in an effort to get rolling on more tobacco-based production, according to the Times, while Gates and Wellcome are working to expand ZMapp's horizons. The two charities are looking for a way to produce ZMapp's proprietary antibodies using animal cells, which are more abundant than tobacco plants. That would allow for more widespread manufacturing, but engineering a new, animal-derived formulation of ZMapp could take months, putting off a manufacturing scale-up until next year.

Even with all that work, however, officials expect to churn out courses of ZMapp numbering in just the hundreds or thousands by early 2015, according to the Times, creating a stockpile that would be insufficient if the virus keeps up its current pace.

Meanwhile, the world's worst-ever Ebola outbreak continues to claim lives, with the death toll reaching past 3,300, according to the World Health Organization. The virus has infected more than 7,000 people across 5 African nations, the group said.

And so the global R&D push for Ebola treatments presses on. The National Institutes of Health has begun human trials on a GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) vaccine for the virus, and Tekmira ($TKMR), developer of an RNAi treatment for Ebola, is working with global regulators to make its drug available. Separately, NewLink Genetics ($NLNK) and Sarepta Therapeutics ($SRPT) have stepped up with early-stage therapies they believe could help fight the virus.

- read the Times story

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