ZMapp, the antibody serum said to have had positive results in fighting the Ebola virus, was made in tobacco plants used as bioreactors. Genetically engineered plant viruses are inserted inside the tobacco plants so that the latter produce the desired proteins to make vaccines and serums; the plant viruses are modified to include a particular gene coding for a specific protein. In this way, useful antibodies are made inside of plants used as protein-manufacturing machines.
Two Americans who were working as aid workers in Liberia which is being plagued by the Ebola epidemic were infected with the deadly virus as well. Luckily, though, they were administered with a serum going by the name of ZMapp after which their health improved quite a lot. The serum ZMapp was only at the experimental stage: having not been previously tested on humans, it was not a confirmed cure. ZMapp was only on non-human primates previously, and the results yielded were promising enough.
ZMapp is made of a cocktail of antibodies: 3 antibodies were generated from mice when the latter were made to be infected with the Ebola virus. Any more detail of the exact content of the ZMapp has not been revealed.
The mystery of ZMapp is further intensified by the way it has been manufactured: in the insides of tobacco plants. Tobacco plants are being grown with the aim to making of them bioreactor plants – the plants are used to manufacture protein used as building blocks for pharmaceutical products like vaccines and antibodies. The company investing in this project is the Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP). Already, therapeutic proteins to manage flu, rabies, HIV have been created in this way. The plants are injected with plant viruses that have previously been treated with a specific gene. The gene in question is chosen according to which antibody and other cell component that is desired to be produced. As a consequence of this, the plants begin creating the particular proteins coded by the genes inserted inside of them by means of viruses. Thereafter, the proteins are extracted from the tobacco plants, and purified to make serums.
Bioreactor plants are more advantageous as a method of producing proteins as they are faster and cheapers. The tobacco plant has been chosen due to its fast growth rate.
Now, KBP is making greater use of their tobacco bioreactors to make more of the ZMapp for additional testing.