OWENSBORO, Ky. — It would seem the Ebola-stricken areas of Africa and the tobacco fields of Western Kentucky are worlds apart, but because of a research facility located in the Commonwealth and a plant synonymous with Kentucky, the two are much closer than people may realize.
Kentucky Bio-Processing (KBP) conducts contract research and development related to protein expression and extraction from tobacco plants. The company specializes in using plants to make proteins that are then used as pharmaceuticals, according to information from KBP.
KBP also notes plant-based protein production is a faster, more efficient and less expensive way to deliver pharmaceutical protein products than traditional methods. Reynolds American, Inc. (RAI), the parent company of tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, acquired KBP in January.
"What piqued our interest in acquiring this company is a strong track record of conducting research related to the tobacco plant," said David Howard, a spokesman for RAI. "Reynolds American believes that KBP’s agri-knowledge can enable RAI’s operating companies to advance their mission of transforming the tobacco industry."
One of the companies KBP contracts with is Mapp Pharmaceuticals, which engaged KPB to manufacture a compound designed to be a post-exposure treatment for the Ebola virus.
The result was an experimental drug known as ZMapp.
This contract occurred in 2007, long before the issue hit close to home, as two missionary medical workers from the United States, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, became infected with the disease while working in Africa. The two are now at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta receiving treatment.
It has been widely reported the two are receiving this experimental serum created at KBP; however, neither Howard nor the hospital will confirm that the serum has been used for either patient. Howard did confirm the serum had been sent to Emory. "In the last week, KBP complied with a request from Emory University and Samaritan’s Purse to provide a limited amount of ZMapp to the university," he said. Samaritan’s Purse is the Christian organization for which Brantly was serving as a missionary.
Last year the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), reported "scientists have successfully treated the deadly Ebola virus in infected animals following onset of disease symptoms, according to a report published online … in Science Translational Medicine."
The drug used in this testing was a precursor to ZMapp known as MB-003. The USAMRIID noted the drug protected 100 percent of non-human primates when given one hour after Ebola exposure.
This isn’t the first instance of research conducted using tobacco as a way to create useful drugs. Other companies and universities have looked into the possibilities of creating flu vaccines and even cancer drugs with the plant.
ZMapp is not an approved drug here or other nations, but Howard said normal FDA approval protocol is expected to begin later this year. He also said additional studies on the formulation of ZMapp are expected to be published soon.
For those surprised to find a corporation known mostly for creating tobacco products to be involved in drug research, Howard said it’s not really odd that RAI owns a company using the tobacco plant to create medicines. He explained RAI has a broad portfolio of products designed for adult tobacco consumers, and also owns a pharmaceutical company known as Niconovum that markets the nicotine replacement therapy gum Zonnic.
"RAI and its operating companies are known for innovation. We are also known for our expertise in the area for research and development, and clearly that is evident in this recent development with KBP," he said.
"What we are seeing right now certainly makes us optimistic and certainly shows that there are opportunities to explore."
For more information about KBP, visit the company's website online at www.kbpllc.com