Protalix Shares Surge (Briefly) on Possible Ebola Drug Technology

Israeli biotech company capable of manufacturing an Ebola treatment similar to the promising experimental drug ZMapp, TV report says.

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Protalix workers handle bioreactors at the Carmiel plant.
Protalix workers handle bioreactors at the Carmiel plant.Credit: Courtesy

REUTERS – Shares in Israeli biotech company Protalix jumped on Sunday following a news report that its technology could be used to develop an Ebola treatment similar to the experimental drug ZMapp, which has shown promising results in recent trials.

Israel’s Channel 2 television reported Saturday that Protalix’s facility in northern Israel is one of the only places in the world with the technology to mass-produce a medicine like ZMapp, which uses antibodies from tobacco plants.

Protalix stock was up by as much as 22% in Tel Aviv Stock Exchange trading Sunday, but settled down to a modest 0.3% rise by closing to 9.21 shekels ($2.56).

CEO David Aviezer said that while future collaboration with the manufacturer of ZMapp was possible, it was still purely theoretical.

Through last week, the stock had fallen nearly 60% since the start of 2013.
ZMapp, made by closely held Mapp Biopharmaceutical, based in San Diego, has drawn much attention this summer.

Two American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia recovered after receiving ZMapp, though their physicians do not know if the drug helped. A Liberian doctor with the disease died despite being given the drug, as did a Spanish priest.

Scientists also reported last month that, in a trial, all 18 of a group of lab monkeys infected with the deadly virus recovered after being treated with ZMapp.

In the Channel 2 report, the head scientist at Protalix said the company can genetically engineer tobacco, has production capacity that exceeds its needs, and offered to produce large amounts of the Ebola drug for Mapp Biopharmaceutical in a relatively short time.

Aviezer said yesterday that Protalix’s technology produces biological drugs in plant cells and it already has a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drug to treat Gaucher disease. He said the company is trying to use its technique to develop antibodies for various diseases.

Aviezer said that rather than using the entire tobacco plant, which is how ZMapp is produced, Protalix more efficiently uses just the plant cells.

“In theory, we probably could also produce the antibody used for treating Ebola in our plant cell system,” he said. “Based on our technology and their technology, we believe this can be done.”

“We have to receive the DNA sequence of the antibody, which is a proprietary asset. It does not belong to us. We would insert it into our plant cells and then purify the antibody protein that would be made in these cells,” said Aviezer.

According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 2,000 people and infected more than 4,000. The outbreak began in Guinea last March. The virus kills about half of those who contract it.

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