By now you’re probably aware of the Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa that has been absolutely devastating. Medical specialists from the United States and around the world have gone to the regions hardest hit by this sickness, even though they risk their own lives to do so.
In fact, two Americans that contracted the virus were brought back to the United States, despite fears that an Ebola outbreak could happen here at home. In an attempt to save their lives, they were given a “secret serum,” which has yet to gain approval by the FDA, known as ZMapp. The serum, produced by the biotech company Mapp Biopharmaceutical, has shown promise in combating Ebola.
The coolest thing about the ZMapp drug (you know, besides the potential to save lives and all of that)? It’s made with biotechnology. Yep, the same technology that gives us GMO crops was employed to develop this drug. It works a little like this:
ZMapp uses an approach called passive immunotherapy. Instead of having a vaccine stimulate the immune system to make antibodies that attack the virus, passive immunotherapy simply supplies the antibodies to the patients. For some infectious diseases, these antibodies are extracted from the blood of patients who have survived the infection and presumably have effective antibodies.
ZMapp instead consists of antibodies that are made by exposing mice to a key Ebola protein and harvesting their antibodies. Those antibodies are then genetically modified to make them more like human antibodies and therefore less likely to provoke an immune reaction if injected into people.
(Source: New York Times.)
Now, I don’t personally understand the process, so I won’t try to explain it. If you’re the science-type and want to study how this is made you can check out this NCBI scholarly article, this PNAS scholarly article, or this more explanatory science blog. I do know that the drug has been tested on monkeys with Ebola and showed potential in saving their lives.
But it brings up two very important points.
First, the science being employed in this techniques and projects is advanced. Way advanced. I certainly don’t understand it, nor have I taken the time to study it either. There has to be some level of trust between the scientific community and the rest of society. Average Joe is not going to be able to comprehend the details of biotechnology and assess the dangers, potential, or costs. I know that requirement of trust sometimes scares people and causes them to reject the technology. But we can’t do that because it leads to my second point….
Second, there is a ton of potential in biotechnology. And it isn’t all benefiting just agriculture. Did you know that insulin is also made from biotechnology? Imagine the people suffering from diabetes not having the medicine that keeps them healthy and allows them to live a somewhat normal life. Some people complain that biotechnology has the potential for great things and we keep hearing about the potential, but there has been no delivery of that potential. While it is true that the sky seems endless, the approach for biotechnology has been to take it slow and move it through a very comprehensive analysis before making it commercially available. Each GMO crop takes years and millions of dollars to research. In fact, that research is precisely why the Ebola treatment is not more readily available to those dying from the disease — we’re still studying it.
As we move forward and expand the opportunities for biotechnology, stories like this one give me hope. It is pretty hard to argue against making medicines that are saving people’s lives, even if we have to employ biotech to do it. Sadly, that won’t convince the more radical sects of the anti-GMO movement — they would rather let you go untreated than risk employing science. But, generally speaking, most people are much more rational than that and discussing biotech medicines is an excellent way for us to point out that this technology can be very, very good for us.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to watch how the two Americans being treated with the experimental medicine react. Both of them started to show signs of getting better and hopefully that will continue. It will also be interesting to see how the World Health Organization reacts – will they allow a broader use of ZMapp given the catastrophe? We’ll just have to wait and find out.
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.