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Local Company Takes a Leading Role in Fight Against Ebola

Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., a San Diego-based company with only nine employees, made international headlines last week for its role in developing an experimental Ebola treatment that may save the lives of two American aid workers who contracted the virus in Liberia.

The company’s experimental drug, ZMapp, may be years from FDA approval and was only tested on infected animals before vials, stored at subzero temperatures, were flown to hospitals in Liberia in hopes of saving the lives of aid workers Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. The patients were told that the experimental drug had never been tried in human beings but had shown promise in experiments with monkeys.

Shortly after the missionary workers contracted the virus, Samaritan’s Purse, the North Carolina-based charity hosting Brantly and Writebol in Liberia, asked Mapp’s clinicians to provide its serum through a compassionate-use agreement. CNN reported that the missionary workers took a leap of faith, giving informed consent to take the experimental serum several days after infection.

Media Spotlight

With Brantly and Writebol’s apparent recovery, Mapp received an onslaught of media attention as hopes for an Ebola cure soared. The drug is still far from passing safety regulations, but the press coverage may lead to additional funding and support for the small biopharmaceutical company.

Located in Sorrento Mesa, Mapp is part of a consortium of 15 institutions led by The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla that received a $28 million, five-year grant earlier this year to help find an antibody “cocktail” to fight the deadly Ebola virus. Of the $28 million, Mapp was directly awarded $3.8 million.

The two scientists behind Mapp are President Larry Zeitlin and CEO Kevin Whaley. Whaley and Zeitlin worked together for a decade as research scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore studying ways to manufacture human antibodies in plants. They worked for three years at Epicyte Pharmaceutical in San Diego before the company was acquired by Biolex Therapeutics Inc. in 2004.

Whaley and Zeitlin founded Mapp in 2003 to focus on plant-produced antibodies, taking on some of the world’s most destructive viruses — Ebola, HIV and herpes.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with body fluids and has sickened 1,711 people in West Africa, killing 932 as of Aug. 4 — a number that is expected to climb, according to the World Health Organization. The virus has historically killed as many as 90 percent of those who contract it. The current outbreak has a fatality rate of about 60 percent due to early treatment efforts, officials said.

There is no cure for Ebola, although Mapp and several other companies are working on drug candidates that are undergoing animal testing. Ebola patients are normally treated with fluids, antibiotics and blood transfusions in hopes that a boosted immune system may fight off the virus.

Market Potential Is Small

“I think it’s great that we have scientists like those at Mapp who expend the effort, energy and time for diseases that are very hard to work on while the perceived market potential might be quite small,” said Gregory

McKee, CEO of CONNECT, a nonprofit group promoting technology and life science industries. “I really respect them and commend them for it. This is the kind of translational medicine that can have impact that a lot of other groups would not choose to work on.”

ZMapp is a “cocktail” of infection-

fighting antibodies that help the immune system attack the virus. These antibodies designed to fight and block specific proteins can stop the virus from latching onto and entering cells. ZMapp is the result of collaboration between Mapp and San Diego-based LeafBio Inc., Mapp’s commercialization arm also owned and operated by Whaley and Zeitlin. The drug is being developed with Toronto-based Defyrus Inc., another small company of only six employees. Kentucky BioProcessing LLC, a subsidiary of tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc., manufactures the drug for Mapp from tobacco plants.

The supply of ZMapp is very low, and Mapp said it is working with commercial and government partners to quickly increase production.


CEO: Kevin Whaley

Revenue: Declined to disclose

No. of local employees: Nine

Investors: NIH grants, $3.8 million

Headquarters: Sorrento Mesa

Year founded: 2003

Company description: Biopharmaceutical company seeking prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, focusing on unmet needs in global health and biodefense

Key factors for success: International spotlight and wide media coverage of Ebola outbreak may lead to additional funding and support


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