In 2009, the Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, had a problem on its hands. The swine flu was spreading and policy makers were realizing that the current methods for producing vaccines would fall short in meeting demand if there was a pandemic.
So DARPA launched an aggressive program labeled Blue Angel to fund a slate of initiatives designed to reimagine vaccine production. The results were so impressive that they may eventually provide an answer to the lack of an Ebola vaccine.
First, a bit of background
Ebola is a severe and often fatal disease, but it's rare. Virtually all of the most recent cases in West Africa are tied to human to human transmission through contact with either the infected person's bodily fluids or contact with items, such as bedding, that have been contaminated with those fluids.
Historically, Ebola outbreaks have been relatively small and contained. However, the current outbreak accounts for more deaths than all other outbreaks combined.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 7,000 people have contracted Ebola during this latest outbreak and about 4,000 people have died.
Although there aren't any approved therapies for the treatment of Ebola, companies like GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), Tekmira (NASDAQ:ABUS), Sarepta (NASDAQ:SRPT), and Mapp Biopharmaceutical have promising therapies in early stage or preclinical trials.
A DoD long shot
DARPA's Blue Angel funding explored a host of possible solutions to boost vaccine production, but it was tobacco that has shown the most promise.
Currently, vaccines are grown in chicken eggs -- a process that takes months; so research focused instead on fast growing plants that have genetic properties that lend themselves to producing proteins. Initially, researchers focused on alfalfa, but eventually it was tobacco's five-week growth period and pharmacologically friendly makeup that won out.
One of the companies that was at the forefront of this research was Medicago, partly owned by Phillip Morris International (NYSE:PM) and Mitsubishi. Medicago owns a 97,000 square foot greenhouse in North Carolina as well as patents important to growing virus-like particles in plants.
The approach at Medicago's plant is much as you'd imagine. Rows and rows of plants in lines that stretch out endlessly tended with the latest growing technology. Those plants are specially treated to embed the vaccine into them and then they're allowed to grow. After a period of weeks, the leaves from the plants are harvested and broken down into vaccine.
Just how much vaccine can be produced by these leaves? In a test in 2012, Medicago produced 10 million doses of an H1N1 vaccine in one month.
Tobacco and Ebola
Mapp Biopharmaceutical has been working on an Ebola vaccine that is being produced in tobacco leaves at Kentucky Bioprocessing, which is owned by the tobacco giant Reynolds American (NYSE:RAI).
However, unlike the massive scale of production put to work for creating flu vaccine by DARPA, Mapp's production of its ZMapp Ebola vaccine is limited (for now).
Prior to the latest Ebola outbreak, production totaled what was needed for pre-clinical and early stage human trials. That meant that only a handful of ZMapp doses were available when healthcare providers came knocking on Mapp's door asking for an emergency supply.
Mapp, policymakers, and non-profits like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are hard at work on ways to ramp up that production. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has put up $25 million this year to help Mapp move forward and according to the New York Times,HHS is also talking to Caliber Biotherapeutics, a company with ties to DARPA Blue Angel funding and to Texas A&M University, about using its massive tobacco growing capacity (it operates the biggest such facility in the U.S.) to boost Zmapp production. Caliber has already demonstrated success on monoclonal antibodies for dengue fever and influenza with partner United Therapeutics (NASDAQ:UTHR).
The ability to quickly produce vaccines remains an important next step in improving global healthcare. Investments made by government to help propel this technology forward could be game-changing in their ability to respond to Ebola and other infectious disease. If this technology can be leveraged similarly to how it was for influenza, it may not just help Mapp, but all of the manufacturers of Ebola vaccines.