Charles Arntzen, Ph.D.

ASU Ebola fighter named innovation winner for Governor’s Celebration


Julie Kurth

For pioneering the development of an experimental drug to combat the Ebola virus, Arizona State University’s Charles Arntzen has been named the winner of the Judges Award for the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation.

The celebration honors the state’s technology industry visionaries whose passion and dedication are propelling Arizona to a position of economic strength. The Arizona Technology Council and the Arizona Commerce Authority jointly host the annual awards event. Honorees will accept their awards at the Phoenix Convention Center on Nov. 12.

Arntzen was instrumental in developing an experimental drug called ZMapp that was recently used to treat U.S. aid workers infected with the Ebola virus. His research as a scientist at the ASU Biodesign Institute has put Arizona on the map in new ways, as people all over the world are fascinated by the idea that it is possible to produce medicines inside a plant. ZMapp is a serum made in a plant with a notorious reputation as a killer: tobacco.

“The idea came to me when I was working on producing a low-cost vaccine in plants to fight devastating infectious diseases in the developing world,” said Arntzen, who is a Regents’ professor and Florence Ely Nelson presidential endowed chair in the ASU School of Life Sciences.

After 9/11 and the anthrax attack on the U.S. Senate, the government invested heavily in biodefense, including $3.7 million to Arntzen and Mapp Biopharmaceutical, a small start-up biotechnology company that manufactures ZMapp. The goal was to develop plant-based defenses against pathogens, including Ebola, which could be used as potential biological threats. Arntzen describes his role as cheerleader in the ongoing clinical validation of the drug.

During the height of the outbreak, two American missionaries, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, each near death and desperate for help, became the first people to receive ZMapp, knowing full well that it had never been tested in humans before. Within 24 hours, Brantly was walking again, and both have fully recovered. ZMapp is now in human trials in West Africa.

The pathway from discovery to treatment began with an idea Arntzen had to produce low-cost vaccines in plants to fight devastating infectious diseases in the developing world. With a dream team of collaborators, they modified the tobacco plants to produce a protective cocktail made of three monoclonal antibodies. This therapeutic cocktail proved to be 100 percent effective in protecting animals against Ebola, even five days after exposure.

"It’s been the creative wonderland within the Biodesign Institute that has allowed us to chase ideas that maybe seemed far-fetched initially, but in this setting we could combine different skills to convert dreams into reality," said Arntzen.

ZMapp is the leading candidate for a drug treatment to fight Ebola, but because it is experimental, there were only enough doses to save a few infected people. In response, the government has awarded a $25 million contract to ZMapp for a scale-up to stockpile enough of the drug for extensive testing and for a safeguard against another possible outbreak.

Arntzen’s ASU colleagues who were a core part of the team — including Shawn Chen, Hugh Mason and Tsafrir Mor — continue to pursue plant-based vaccines and therapeutics to combat West Nile virus, dengue fever, nerve agents and even cancer.

In addition to Arntzen, other ASU finalists at the Governor’s Celebration of Innovation include Michael Crow for the lifetime achievement award and the Sanford Inspire Program of Phoenix. A complement to innovation at the New American University, ASU scientists have maintained a solid track record by being honored at the Governor’s Celebration, with 17 finalists and 11 winners since 2004.