Researchers from NCCU, NC State, UNC-CH using algae to create treatment for Ebola, other viruses
Researchers from North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and UNC-Chapel Hill are trying to come up with a way to mass-produce a cure for Ebola and other viruses by using algae to produce disease-fighting proteins in large quantities. Building on a previous treatment in which tobacco plants produced only very small amounts of the therapeutic, the research team instead examined using algae to produce the proteins and have gotten encouraging results.
UNC ROI: Research Opportunities Initiative
TinChung Leung, PhD: To do research the most important thing is curiosity. We had to ask the right questions and then try to solve [the problem]. How my research was started is…I think I have to trace back to my childhood. We [kept] tiny little fish in a jar and I [looked] at them and I just [felt] like there’s a lot of things that I can learn from them. And my curiosity [led] me to become a scientist. And here I am. I am studying zebrafish and [looking] at the development of the zebrafish to help treat human disease.
During the Ebola crisis the amount of people that [died] from it is horrible. We [heard] about the experimental drug [Zmapp]; they used it to treat two American doctors in the very late stage of the infection, and [the treatment saved] their [lives].
Abhinav Shukla, PhD: I don’t think anybody was expecting a pandemic of Ebola to just crop up, basically the next day. Zmapp was really being worked on by a biotech company which could really essentially serve as a cure for Ebola. And all of a sudden the Ebola outbreak broke out and they were trying to scale up that technology.
TinChung Leung, PhD: We heard that they [were] trying to produce it in a larger quantity, but they still [were] not able to catch up. These particular Zmapp antibodies were produced in [a] plant, in tobacco. They can produce a dozen of doses to treat humans in a month, so the production is way limited. Every day in the lab we grow microalgae and use it to feed rotifer, a tiny invertebrate, and then use that rotifer to feed a tiny little fish baby. And I would just wonder: tobacco is a plant, algae is also [a] plant. They reproduce very fast. They double almost every day, and can we use this same plant system to [a] produce larger culture. Then we may catch up so they may help [meet] the demand for this therapeutic. So then I start talking to my colleague Jay because he is a plant engineer. Maybe we can come up with some idea that can make this process faster. To make such a therapeutic antibody is new to us. So we [did not] really have the resources to invest in this project, and we know this: the Research Opportunities Initiative [is available to help] North Carolina universities to develop new technology that can be used potentially for the economy of North Carolina. And that [funding program was] perfectly fit to help us to support our new teams and to make our technology possible.
Michael Miley, PhD: I got an email from TinChung reaching out to me and then we had a couple phone conversations and he was telling me about the project and the lofty goals it had, and I thought it sounded like a really good idea and from there we started moving on to get it submitted. The process starts over at NC Central University in Jay’s lab. Jay’s lab works with setting up the initial reagents that we need to move the project forward. [Then it goes] over to TinChung’s group who works with Jim over at the research campus at NCCU and produce the proteins that we are interested in and I work on extracting the proteins from those plant cells, and then [it] moves over to NC State University to Penelope to produce large amounts of algae for the process.
Within the last year we have been able to demonstrate with a marker protein called GFP to open the cells, to purify the protein and now we’re poised with these positive results to now move forward into the real work of the project which is working with the antibodies.
TinChung Leung, PhD: In our system, they can produce these foreign proteins, these green fluorescent proteins, and the process works smoothly. And the same platform, if it works for Ebola antibody it will also work for other infectious diseases, for example: West Nile Virus, Rabies and Zika virus.
Abhinav Shukla, PhD: But how can we now harness this fast growing scalable kind of an expression system to really produce an efficacious therapeutic. That’s really what the crux of the matter is because ultimately the clinic and the patients are out there and they require a therapeutic that can really address their concerns. That’s really why research is so critical to the biopharmaceutical industry as a whole. It is really something that the industry needs to be able to sort of meet the needs of the world.
TinChung Leung, PhD: Since my childhood, I know one day I want to study something great that means something. We are really grateful that the ROI has this funding possibility. This investment on our team, on this project will make a big impact in the future.
TinChung Leung, PhD
NCCU Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the North Carolina Research Campus
Abhinav Shukla, PhD
Senior VP, Process Development
Michael Miley, PhD
Director of UNC Antibody Core Facility