News / Health

Ebola Emergency Turns Spotlight on Experimental Drugs

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation's head office is pictured in Burnaby, British Columbia Aug. 5, 2014.
Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation's head office is pictured in Burnaby, British Columbia Aug. 5, 2014.
Reuters

With hundreds of patients in Africa suffering the devastating effects of Ebola, health experts are scrambling to determine which drugs might offer the best experimental treatment, and researchers are being pressed by government officials to speed up their work.

Three treatments have shown especially promising results in monkeys, the researchers said. One, produced by tiny California biotech Mapp Biopharmaceutical, gained international prominence this week when it was given to two U.S. aid workers who contracted Ebola in West Africa and have since shown signs of improvement.

Others are from Vancouver-based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and privately-held Profectus BioSciences, of Tarrytown, NY.

Click to enlargeClick to enlarge
x
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

On Wednesday the World Health Organization said it would discuss next week the ethics of using Ebola drugs that have never been cleared for human use, wary of a long history of medicines being tested on people who were never properly informed of the risks. In the countries hardest hit by Ebola, suspicion of foreign medical workers is already widespread.

But the health minister of Nigeria, Onyenbuchi Chukwu, told reporters this week that he had asked U.S. health officials about access to experimental Ebola therapies. U.S. drugmakers are fielding questions from government officials about their ability to supply treatments in sufficient quantities should the request come.

"For years we've told the government you need to invest a little bit of money in this," said Profectus chief scientific officer John Eldridge. "And now it's, 'Oh my God, how fast can you make this?' "

Officials at Mapp and Tekmira would not comment on efforts to make their treatments available in response to the outbreak.

President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the conclusion of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the State Department in Washington, August 6, 2014.President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the conclusion of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the State Department in Washington, August 6, 2014.
x
President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the conclusion of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the State Department in Washington, August 6, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the conclusion of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the State Department in Washington, August 6, 2014.

Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday, President Barack Obama said he lacks enough information to green-light Mapp's drug to treat the deadly Ebola virus and that the initial response should focus on public health measures to contain the outbreak.

"We've got to let the science guide us, and I don't think all the information is in on whether this drug is helpful," the president said, adding that public health officials, in the course of containing the current outbreak, could assess whether new drugs or treatments can be effective.

"We're focusing on the public health approach right now, but I will continue to seek information about what we're learning about these drugs going forward," he said.

Dr. James Crowe, director of the Vaccine Center at Vanderbilt University who has been developing an Ebola treatment similar to Mapp's, said a Pentagon agency contacted him this week about his work and added he will meet next week with government scientists about accelerating his research.

Monkey tests

No Ebola drugs or vaccines have even entered mid-stage human trials, let alone been approved. The furthest along have been tested only in monkeys and a handful of humans.

Mapp Biopharmaceutical began developing its ZMapp treatment more than a decade ago. It consists of a cocktail of nonoclonal antibodies, proteins that are highly specific for the Ebola virus and that are produced in bioengineered tobacco plants.

In 2012 Mapp, working with scientists at the U.S. Army Military Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland, announced that when rhesus macaques received the cocktail an hour after infection by Ebola, all survived. When they received it 48 hours after infection, two-thirds survived.

Last year, ZMapp passed a stiffer test: monkeys that had been infected with Ebola and developed fevers and other symptoms received the intravenous cocktail 104 to 120 hours after infection; 43 percent recovered.

When the U.S. government decided to develop a contingency plan in case of accidental exposure to Ebola by one or two people at a U.S. research facility, it began storing a small amount of ZMapp, according to a source familiar with the contingency plan. ZMapp was chosen because the science is relatively easy to understand and the risks considered relatively small, the source said.

The stock of Tekmira soared on expectations its Ebola drug might speed toward approval due to the crisis, or even be used in the current outbreak.

Under a $140 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense, it is developing a drug based on a genetic technology called RNA interference.

The idea is to take strands of genetic material that are the virus's mirror image and, using nanoparticles, slip them into cells where Ebola is replicating. In theory, the RNA disables the virus.

In experiments by scientists at the army research unit, Tekmira reported last November, most animals infected with lethal amounts of Ebola survived when given the RNA product. The survival rate was 83 percent when the animals were treated 24 or 48 hours after infection and 67 percent when they were treated 72 hours after.

"It is amazing how well that works in non-human primates," said Ebola researcher Thomas Geisbert of the University of Texas Medical Branch, who has conducted several studies of the company's drug in monkeys.

Human trials

Last month, Tekmira announced that its early-stage human trial had been put on hold by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which had concerns about the drug's safety.

Tekmira declined requests for an interview.

Profectus BioSciences has also tested its Ebola vaccine in monkeys, with good results, said Eldridge.

In a study with scientists at government biomedical research centers and the Pentagon, Profectus found that a single intramuscular injection protected all of the rhesus monkeys exposed to Ebola three weeks later. The company hopes to launch a human trial to assess the vaccine's safety within the next 12 months, Eldridge said.

An experimental vaccine similar to Profectus's, developed by academic and government scientists, was rushed into emergency use only once. In 2009 a scientist in Germany working with Ebola-infected guinea pigs pricked her finger with a syringe containing the virus. The vaccine was flown from Canada, one of the sites where it was being developed.

"She got that vaccine in less than 40 hours and survived," said Geisbert, though it's impossible to know whether that was because of the vaccine. "She lived. That's all I care about."

With greater financial support, scientists said, Ebola treatments could be ready for use sooner. For less than $10 million, said Vanderbilt's Crowe, four or five of the experimental drugs could be ready for testing within in four months.

All of them seem to be effective only in a small window after exposure, however.

"Nothing on planet Earth is going to work if somebody comes in with full-blown Ebola hemorrhagic fever and they are 24 hours or 72 hours from death," said Geisbert. "The damage has been done."

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

1855 Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans

Document lists entire families that were up for sale in New Orleans, offering graphic insight into the slavery trade More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: John
August 11, 2014 11:00 AM
The US is still involved in the war in Somalia, decades after Bush Snr foolishly sent troops to help distribute food to the starving. The revolt by Boko Haram against polio vaccination goes from strength to strength. (Don't know whether the suit against the drug company that tested an experimental drug on the people of Kano has been settled though.) Yet some people still think we should give experimental drugs to Africans. They'll never learn!! The fact is, if Africans were really concerned about this disease, they'd have made a deal with Western drug companies to do the clinical trials of potential vaccines and cures decades ago. This doesn't take super technical skill; merely careful record keeping and a plentiful supply of victims---oops brave volunteers, to try the drugs. They just decided to wait until we panicked, so we'd provide all the money and guinea pigs ourselves. Must admit their strategy is working like a charm!!!

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs