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August 12, 2014

Host: Ted Simons

ASU Ebola Virus Research

  |   Video
  • An experimental treatment for the Ebola virus has been developed by an Arizona State University researcher. Charles Arntzen will discuss his work on a tobacco-derived drug being used to treat two Ebola virus patients flown to the U.S. for treatment.
  • Charles Arntzen - Regents’ Professor, Arizona State University
Category: Medical/Health   |   Keywords: medical, health, asu, research, ebola, virus, tobacco, drug, treatment,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Two American health care workers who contracted the ebola virus in Africa are being treated with an experimental drug developed from research at ASU. Here now is the man conducting that research, Charles Arntzen of ASU's Biodesign Institute. This is a great story, told a little bit now, but let's get to the basics here. When did you hear your work was being used?

Charles Arntzen: I got a call and then an email last week, I think it was Tuesday, from Larry Zeitland, the President of a little company in San Diego called Mapp. He called me and said, have you seen the news about the ebola treatment? You know that's the same cocktail we've written up this paper about, and I'm involved in helping him get this scientific background published. I went on the website and saw what was going on and immediately sent notes back to him. Wow, congratulations, that's -- you can draw a straight line from stuff you've done to saving two lives, at least it looks like it. Now, you give me credit, I appreciate the credit. My skill set is in making plants produce some proteins.

Charles Arntzen: Larry Zeitland and his colleague at Mapp and other colleagues are the antibiotic gurus. They know how to engineer an antibody so it does really good things. We were involved in writing up a grant proposal to the Army. We said, let's use plants -- I'll come back to that -- let's use plants to make both a vaccine and a therapeutic antibody to treat ebola. We had known each other for a long team, interested in global public health. From a corporate standpoint these guys at Mapp really aren't driven by return on investment because they don't have any investors. They have never taken venture capital money, they are driven by scientific returns intellectually stimulating things.

Ted Simons: You mentioned you had a relationship since the early 2000s. You got the phone call, did it startle you a little bit? Take you in a different direction?

Charles Arntzen: I know these guys pretty well and they are often pulling my chain about something. I wasn't really sure this was on the up and up. Once I checked the website and saw the video footage and everything else -- Larry and Kevin have both been adjunct faculty with us at the Biodesign Institute for years now,so we know these guys very well.

Ted Simons: Is this the first time it's been used on humans?

Charles Arntzen: It's definitely the first time in humans. The particular batch sent over to Africa had been prepared in Kentucky by this little company there. It was supposed to go into animal testing because the way we prove that a drug is good is to infect monkeys with ebola and then test the drug. Somebody in their wisdom, somebody in government made the decision, stop that stuff from going to the monkey labs, send it to Africa. It just seems like the stars were aligned. It got there in time and the two people who received the experimental drug were both knowledgeable about ebola, knew medicine, and they were still -- they hadn't succumbed to the disease to the point that they could still talk about it and they were able to give informed consent, which is critical. You can't just give an untested drug to people. They said they had a pretty good likelihood they were going to die. If we've got something, let's give it a try, give it a shot, which it literally was. We can't say for sure yet it was the drug that did it but, you know, it works on those two people just like it had worked on monkeys in the previous tests.

Ted Simons: I was wondering how much it worked on mice and monkeys. Did it work well? It had to work well enough to where you felt some sort of confidence.

Charles Arntzen: It wasn't my decision about it.

Ted Simons: Right.

Charles Arntzen: But I've been involved enough so that I understand what was going on.

Charles Arntzen: When the first batch of these antibodies was made jointly, we joined forces, ASU and Mapp. Some of the first antibiotics could barely protect a mouse model from ebola. That's sort of the weakest challenge you can have. The guys kept engineering antibiotics, making them better and better. In parallel, this company in Kentucky had been working on the tobacco plant, essentially genetically designing it so when it makes an antibiotic, it's virtually identical to an antibiotic that would come from you or me. If we took a vial of the stuff sent to Africa, you'd have to be a really darn good biochemist to say that's one from people and that's one from plants.

Ted Simons: I know your specialty is plant-based research and stuff. What got you going on tobacco? What did you find when you were looking at tobacco? This company must have liked what you found. They all of a sudden became good buds.

Charles Arntzen: We've had this mission, all of us, of trying to do something for global public health. And we have wonderful drugs in this country, but other antibiotic drugs used today would be cancer drugs like hercept and et cetera. If you need those drugs they are going to cost you or your insurance company tens of thousands, probably $75,000, $80,000 for a course of treatment. There's a whole bunch of people who need these protein drugs out all around the world. We figured the only way to get the cost down is start to come up with a manufacturing system that's much less expensive. And growing plants in greenhouses is significantly less costly than building a building with big stainless steel fermenters and control processes and et cetera. We were a little naive as academics would be. It's not going to be dirt cheap, but we do have a new manufacturing system. In this particular case the advantage was we could move much more rapidly putting genes into a tobacco plant than, say, Merck could have done if they were putting genes into cells to go into their big fermenters, it's.

Ted Simons: Isn't that interesting. You've got an arm of Reynolds Tobacco involved with this?

Charles Arntzen: The research company set up in Owensboro, Kentucky, a couple of their scientists are adjunct appointments with us at ASU. They had taken their company to a point they had a great skillset. Reynolds approached the people, a little company in Kentucky and said, We've got a lot of skills in tobacco. We believe that we can make money on tobacco doing other things than smoking it. Let's combine our skill sets. They have, and now we've got a company with incredible manufacturing capacity.

Ted Simons: We've run out of time, this is absolutely fascinating. Is tobacco a particular plan that's more amenable to this sort of thing? Or are you working with other plants and seeing similar results.

Charles Arntzen: We've narrowed it down. Two reasons maintain. It's genetically selected so it's got traits that make protein production unique. The other thing is we use plant viruses to do our genetic engineering. And tobacco has a whole bunch of viruses that are infected. We've got a toolbox of viruses to put genes in and take genes out and infect the tobacco plant. My role now is just to be a cheerleader and conduct the orchestra here and say, put these things together and it makes the view beautiful.

Ted Simons: You must have been beautiful when you heard about those folks being treated so far successfully.

Charles Arntzen: Congratulations to the 100-plus people and those being treated so far.

Krauss on Science

  |   Video
  • Arizona State University Physicist Lawrence Krauss brings us up to date on the latest science news.
  • Lawrence Krauss - Physicist, Arizona State University
Category: Science   |   Keywords: science, lawrence krauss, asu, news,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: ASU physicist Lawrence Krauss joins us each month to discuss the latest in science news, which this month includes giant telescopes, gamma rays and what could be the discovery of a new state of matter. Here now is the suddenly hirsute Lawrence Lauren. What's with the facial --

Lawrence Krauss: What can I say? I thought I'd try the villain look. My evil twin from another dimension.

Ted Simons: We'll see how the twin does. And by the way, do all these things -- the giant Magellan, the extremely large --

Lawrence Krauss: You run out of simple names after a while.

Lawrence Krauss: I want to say that today all the topics come under the general guise of, There are more things in Heaven or earth than are dreamt of in your imagination. I'm going to take a minute to say, what we just heard was amazing and saves people's lives. The important thing is, this began as fundamental research. And that's the important thing. You never know where it's going to lead. We will talk about some things that are pretty esoteric but you never know where it’s going to lead.

Ted Simons: Giant Magellan telescope.

Lawrence Krauss: GMT, you get Greenwich Mean Time. That telescope and one of a bunch. We are on the threshold of a new generation of telescopes. I remember when I was growing up and even when you were growing up there was the largest telescope in the world was a -inch Mount Palimar telescope. Right through the s, people thought that would be the largest telescope anyone could ever build. And now the giant Magellan telescope has now just announced internally they are going begin construction. It's a huge telescope with seven large Eight-meter mirrors. It's like a telescope that's meters across, almost feet across. It'll have the Resolution of times the Hubble space telescope. In the s we built the first eight-mirror scope. The giant Magellan telescope is just one of in four different telescopes to meters across, that are going to be so much more powerful than telescopes that have existed before. Not only can we now build these huge mirrors, before people thought the gravity, the memorials were so heavy it could cause the mirrors to sag. You couldn't build one of the right curvature and that’s why. They thought the Hale telescope was the largest. People said you can't build them that big because the atmosphere is so turbulent the telescopes won't work. What’s really neat, this was actually developed here in Arizona. You can see the light bouncing to a secondary mirror on the top. Those secondary mirrors are actually flexibility mirrors. The telescope sends lasers at the sky, find out the way it works. These things get rid of the effects of the atmospheric, it's amazing.

Ted Simons: Like a gyroscope.

Lawrence Krauss: It gets rid of the twinkle stars have. Telescopes like this are becoming practical. There's a generation, the GMT is supposed to start operation . It's a whole new generation of money. Each of these telescopes costs $ billion. But they will allow us to resolve planets around stars and who knows what else. They will allow to us see things we've never seen before.

Ok so that’s the bottom line there. Now, the other telescope, the Large Area telescope, ASU is connected, well U of A is connected with the Magellan, now ASU is connected with the Large Area telescope. Supernovas, novas, what's going on?

Lawrence Krauss: The Large Area telescope is part of the satellite called the Fermi satellite. It goes around and looked at the universe's gamma rays. They are incredibly energetic radiation. You have ultraviolet radiation, why you wear a hat in Arizona. And then X-rays. But gamma rays are still more energetic. What's amazing is the universe is full of incredibly energetic radiation. A lot of times we don't know what's producing that. Novae are not super novae. That's what happens when a star blows up, when it literally blows up the star and it's responsible for you and I being here. A nova is a little less fancy, but what it is, when a white dwarf, a very compact star at the end of its life basically, has a nearby star, and draws material from that near star on it, hydrogen. The density and pressures are such that hydrogen can heat up and suddenly erupt in a thermonuclear explosion. It doesn't blow up the star, just the surface of the star. Only one one- thousandth or maybe less of the material of the star actually explodes. But it will still produce something like times the energy produced by the sun each year. People thought that's night but it's not a supernova and not enough energy to reduce gamma rays. A colleague of mine at ASU was using this gamma ray telescope, the large area telescope and discovered gamma rays coming from that nova. Two years later they saw two others. We don't have the slightest idea of how such a pitifully small explosion would be enough to destroy us or the rest of the earth. It's a total mystery.

Ted Simons: It's a surprising discovery.

Lawrence Krauss: It’s a surprise. I told you, more things in heaven and earth.

Ted Simons: Alright, so know you got this gamma ray that you can't figure out quite about the novae or super novae. What is a droppeltong?

Lawrence Krauss: It's a name and a not very good name given to a new kind of matter that's sort of been even. People are able to manipulate materials on smaller and smaller scales. We’re discovering the quantum nature of materials is quite exciting. Quantum mechanics is important to materials, as we said before. But we can now create very exotic quantum states by shooting lasers at material like semiconductors. There's an item called an exton when you knock an electron into a semiconductor, it still stays there it hasn’t gone out and bound any atoms. But sort of where it left doesn't have an electron anymore and there's one less negative charge. It's kind of gets attracted to that region because all around it are other electrons. This region has one less electron and it looks like an electron hole pair. It acts like a particle called an exotons. Well, shooting lasers to produce exotons, a group has discovered if you shine a laser light short enough, you produce enough of these exotons that what happens is they kind of merge together in a new kind of liquid. A fog of electrons and holes. Not individual exotons. They call that a droppeltong.

Ted Simons: This is happening at a submicroscopic level.

Lawrence Krauss: At a submicroscopic level! This thing lasts a few trillionths of a second. Now that may not seem very long but on an atomic scale it's incredibly long. Now, what can you do with this stuff? Well I know what you can do with the exotons but with the droppeltongs I don't have any idea. But we didn’t know that a group of exotons could make a liquid. Will this be used for new kinds of storage or computing? We don’t know. It's a new matter that is exotic and we would have never guessed it could have existed without these experiments. I don't know and you don't, but maybe it'll be used to power your telephone.

Ted Simons: Getting it to last a little longer might be a good first step?
Lawrence Krauss: Well, a trillionth of a second is incredibly long on an atomic scale. Many elementary particles probably last a billionth of a -- of a second. But you’re right, making it last longer would be very important. It's the same thing we're trying to do in quantum computers. Create these exotic states, that normally last just a trillionth of a second but if you want to do some computing with them you’ll have to make them last longer. That's the kind of research that's going to happen to see if we can make it practical. But first to discover such a weird state is the first step. Where it goes, nobody knows.

Ted Simons: So we got the the droppeltongs and excitons. The excitons were kinda old news but the droppeltongs brand new thing there.

Lawrence Krauss: We never talked about excitons, even though they were exciting.

Ted Simons: Apparently. We got the Magellan telescope and the Large Area telescope. We didn't talk about Europe's extremely large telescopes.

Lawrence Krauss: I've lost track, there are probably four of them being built in it. It's even bigger in Hawaii. They are raising the money and each costs about 8 hundred million to a billion dollars. They will real toss things, well maybe I'll be back in 2025 and we can have a chat about it.

Ted Simons: Only if you keep that beard.

Lawrence Krauss: The reviews online have been pretty good.

Ted Simons: Good to see you again.

Ted Simons: All right. Tomorrow on "Arizona Horizon" Phoenix is gearing up for an expansion of light-rail street improvements. How a loaner of an Arizona clothing company is providing for basic needs. That is it for now.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.