As Thomas Eric Duncan remains in isolation at a hospital in Dallas, and American journalist Ashoka Mukpo prepares to be transported home, many are wondering: Will they receive an experimental drug like other Ebola patients treated in the United States?
Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol received an experimental serum called ZMapp, engineered from antibodies harvested in mice. Questions remain about the extent to which ZMapp was responsible for the patients’ recovery, but demand for the drug has skyrocketed.
Unfortunately, the process used to make the doses given to Brantly, Writebol and a few other patients is costly and time-consuming. Public health officials are now looking for ways to develop more of this experimental drug quickly.
Tobacco plants may hold the key.
In the world of health and medicine, the word tobacco usually brings to mind cancer, emphysema and heart disease. But in recent years the plant’s tarnished reputation is getting a makeover from the development of pharmaceuticals through an effective, swift and cost-cutting technique that has been dubbed “biopharming.”
It would be deliciously ironic if tobacco staves off becoming illegal (you know that’s the real end game) by roaring back as a pharmaceutical darling. Apparently, the demon leaf can greatly speed up the vaccine manufacturing process, which then saves money.
Drugs and vaccines are manufactured in a variety of ways. Flu vaccines, for example, are most commonly produced by injecting fertilized hen eggs with the virus. The virus is incubated for days so it can replicate, be harvested, inactivated or weakened, and then made into either a flu shot or nasal spray.
The process can cost around $150 million each year, using $600,000 eggs each day. Tobacco plants can produce antibodies in much less time for a fraction of the cost, advocates say.
Let’s get this done while the free market is at least peripherally involved in pharmaceutical research and “free” health care has a chance to kill it.