While there's no known cure for the Ebola virus, there is a possibility that a solution could be on the way.
Two American aid workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia have been given an experimental serum, never before tested on humans — and it appears to be working.
Aid workers Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol were given the serum while still in Liberia, in the care of their host organization Samaritan's Purse, with whom they were volunteering when they fell ill.
Brantly, whose condition had rapidly deteriorated, was given the serum on Thursday — nine days after contracting the disease. Though he had been experiencing trouble breathing and told doctors he thought he was going to die, Brantly's condition rapidly improved after being given the drug. He has even able to walk with assistance.
Brantly arrived in the US on Saturday, and Writebol arrived today. They are both being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, near the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) headquarters.
The serum — known as ZMapp — was developed by Mapp Biopharmaceuticals. The company has been working on developing an Ebola drug for the past several years, finally deeming ZMapp a viable drug candidate in January. The drug is made up of "humanized" monoclonal antibodies made from lab-developed antibodies to enhance the body's immune system. It was developed through testing on mice and is produced by plants, including tobacco.
Mapp, which has received funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was given an additional grant by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a branch of the Defense Department, on July 30 for "promising results." The grant came amid the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed more than 880 lives and been deemed the worst outbreak of the virus on record.
The drug, though it has not been clinically tested on humans and is not FDA certified, was selected as an experimental treatment option by Samaritan's Purse.
According to a statement from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of NIH, "Samaritan's Purse contacted CDC officials in Liberia to discuss the status of various experimental treatments that they had identified via a search from the literature. CDC officials referred them to an NIH scientist who was on the ground in West Africa assisting with outbreak response efforts and broadly familiar with the various experimental treatment candidates. The scientist was able to informally answer some questions and referred them to appropriate company contacts to pursue their interest in obtaining experimental product."
Untested and uncertified drugs such as ZMapp can be administered under the FDA's expanded access, or "compassionate use," guidelines, meaning circumstances in which a patient is facing a life-threatening illness. Brantly and Writebol were required to give their caregivers at Samaritan's Purse informed consent in order to receive the drug.
While ZMapp appears to have played a role for Brantly's and Writebol's improving conditions, introducing it to a larger population isn't an easy next step.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned that doctors should not take Brantly and Writebol's progress as indisputable proof that other patients will react to ZMapp in the same way.
"Having worked with administering antibodies for people for a really long time, that would be distinctly unusual," he told CNN. "As we all know in medicine … you have to withhold judgment."
There's also the issue of supply. The company that produces the tobacco from which ZMapp is made, Kentucky BioProcessing, reportedly has plans to increase production, but the process will take several months.
Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist