Though for many of us, the ebola crises is oceans away, the epidemic still weighs heavily on the hearts and minds of people all over the world. For some researchers, public health officials and drug developers, it is the driving force of all daily activity. Right now, there are two vaccines and eight treatments being developed or tested for their effectiveness against controlling infection or stopping the virus’ spread. The most encouraging results have come from treatments that rely on a very basic aspect of immunology: antibodies neutralize viruses.
Antibodies are proteins made by immune cells called B cells. Each one of your millions of B cells is capable of producing antibodies specific for one thing, and when a B cell comes into contact with that one thing, it secretes lots of antibodies. The antibodies then tag invading pathogens, like viruses, to make other immune cells aware of the invader’s presence. If enough antibodies stick to a virus, they can cover it up, or neutralize it, and prevent it from infecting cells.
Ebola infection does trigger an antibody response, but for reasons that are still being studied, those antibodies are not usually enough to stop the virus before it spreads throughout the body. The concept behind ebola treatments like Zmapp, blood transfusions, vaccines and even supportive care, is to help the immune system outpace the growing virus.
Over the summer, this product was on headlines everywhere. Zmapp sparked a controversy over who should get the most cutting-edge treatments when it was given to two missionary doctors who flown to Atlanta for care. Zmapp is not really a drug; it’s a combination of three kinds of antibodies that bind to the surface of ebola virus particles. Because each type was originally produced by one individual B cell they are called monoclonal antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies are used for treating cancer, autoimmune diseases and other infections.
Identifying the right monoclonal antibodies can be a painstaking and years-long process. Researchers collect B cells from a person or animal in the midst of an active immune response, in this case, against ebola. Then they seed individual antibody-making B cells into tiny wells on a cell culture dish. Later they test the culture media from each well for the presence of antibodies and select the cells making the best antibody to be “immortalized.” Cells are immortalized by altering their genes or fusing them with cancer cells that are already immortal. Usually the cells are frozen and stored for later use. They can be thawed anytime and grown to large quantities to make antibody.
It seems simple, but getting the process right can take years. The monoclonal antibodies in Zmapp were originally derived in mice back in 2000.
From there, the antibodies have to be purified. It can take liters and liters of cell media to purify enough antibody to treat one person one time. As a therapeutic, monoclonal antibodies are typically dosed over multiple treatments. In a recently published study showing the effectiveness of Zmapp against ebola infected monkeys, the animals were treated three to five times a day.
There are alternative ways to do this, however. Because antibodies are proteins they are coded by specific genes. So instead of fusing selected B cells with cancer cells, researchers could copy the gene coding for the cell’s antibody and put it into something else, like bacteria or, in the case of Zmapp, tobacco plants. Many biological products, like insulin have been produced in bacteria since the 1980s. Plant production of human proteins is a bit more recent. The first human protein produced in plants in 2012 for a medical purpose was an enzyme injected into patients who can’t make it themselves. Some insulin is also now produced in plants.
Unlike cell-based or bacteria-based approaches, plants don’t have to be genetically manipulated and then grown up and harvested. Instead, adult plants are infected with viruses engineered to express the antibody-coding genes. The viruses introduce the genes, and the plants make the antibody. For some proteins, this results in much higher yields than cell-based methods. The monoclonal antibodies in Zmapp are being made by three different companies using a variety of these methods.
But there is a catch. When any kind of cell (plant, animal, bacteria) produces a protein, it adds little sugar labels to keep track of it during each stage of production. This process is called glycosylation. These glyo-labels vary by species and they can affect the way a protein functions. Because of this, the plants being used to grow Zmapp are not your run-of-mill tobacco. They are genetically modified so that they can give the anti-ebola antibodies more human-looking labels. That adds another layer of complexity to be addressed as these companies start to make large quantities of Zmapp.
It’s fascinating how this technology was developed step by step—often in obscurity—over the course of many decades. Hopefully, it will be scaled up successfully in the coming months to provide more much-needed doses.
Next time…Blood transfusions.