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Hijacking plant biology to fight Ebola virus

Researcher heeds NSF call for solutions to Ebola, engineers tobacco plants to manufacture Ebola virus antibody at scale

Sterile Nicotiana tabacum plants growing in nutrient agar.

Sterile Nicotiana tabacum plants growing in nutrient agar.
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April 2, 2018

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In 2014, officials in the West African nation of Guinea reported an outbreak of Ebola, a deadly zoonotic disease caused by Zaire ebolavirus, that jumps from infected bats to humans. The outbreak quickly became a global epidemic, spreading to 10 countries around the world, infecting more than 26,000 people and killing 11,310, including one person in the U.S.

In response, NSF invited researchers to mobilize and apply for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) awards to investigate the Ebola virus and offer solutions. One company, PhylloTech, received NSF support to adapt its plant-based platform to scale up the production of an Ebola antibody used in an experimental biopharmaceutical called ZMAPP™ -- currently the only available treatment for the deadly virus.

The idea for the production of the antibody stems from an NSF-funded researcher who sought to better understand how plants communicate with microorganisms living on their leaf surfaces. This led to the discovery that trichomes -- organelles on the leaf surface -- of the tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, secrete a protein called phylloplanin, an antimicrobial agent that defends against fungal infections. The researcher engineered the biological system to generate other proteins in commercial quantities, including the Ebola antibody used in ZMAPP™.

NSF Directorate(s):
Directorate for Biological Sciences
Directorate for Engineering


Related Awards
#0400688 Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Microbial Biology for FY 2004
#1045709 SBIR Phase I: Targeted Production of Spider Silk Fibroins in Plant Trichomes
#1230075 SBIR Phase II: Targeted Production of Spider Silk Fibroins in Plant Trichomes
#1510898 SBIR RAPID: Plant Bioproduction of Antibodies for the Treatment of Ebola Infection
#1632247 SBIR Phase II: Plant Bioproduction of Therapeutics and Antibodies for the Treatment of Ebola and Other Diseases

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