Mapp Bio

By Bradley J. Fikes
Oct. 9, 2014

Ebola drug maker Mapp Biopharmaceutical is working on several fronts to increase supplies of the potentially life-saving medicine as fast as possible, Mapp’s chief executive, Kevin Whaley, said Thursday.

Mapp has teamed up with a pharmaceutical partner to make more of the drug, ZMapp, Whaley said in a rare interview. Additionally, Mapp is exploring whether the manufacturing process can be made more efficient, and whether ZMapp can be given in smaller doses and still be effective.

Mapp has been focused on producing as much ZMapp, as quickly as possible, Whaley said. That’s why the company has maintained a low profile despite worldwide interest in the previously little-known San Diego biotech.

“There has been a lot of coverage, but we know what our job is, so we stay very focused,” Whaley said.

While the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus has been almost exclusively confined to West Africa, a few cases have started appearing in Europe and the United States. The first Ebola death in America occurred Wednesday; the patient had recently visited hard-hit Liberia.

ZMapp is now made in genetically modified tobacco plants by Kentucky BioProcessing. Whaley said the Owensboro, KY company will continue production as fast as possible. At the same time, the new partner, whom Whaley declined to name, will scale up a more traditional biotech process using genetically modified mammalian cells. That process uses “CHO” cells, derived from Chinese hamster ovaries, grown in sterile tanks.

Mapp is also exploring ways to increase the yield of ZMapp from each plant, and to determine if a lower dose of the drug will still be effective against Ebola. Using less ZMapp per patient means more doses would be available, Whaley said.

Manufacturing in plants gives a potential cost advantage, and drugs can be made more quickly, Whaley said. But traditional biotech manufacturing can produce larger quantities in the long run, because the infrastructure is currently more extensive than for plant-based pharmaceuticals.

And with a constantly rising death toll from Ebola, the need to increase production quickly is critical.

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