With killer virus Ebola out of control, Israel’s Protalix shares surge

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Ebola was suspected to have spread to countries like Saudi Arabia and even by plane to the United Arab Emirates. Wishful thinkers believe it could kill 20,000 people before it’s contained. Pessimists believe that this killer virus could be a worldwide problem if it’s not stopped in its tracks.

Besides the experimental drug ZMapp made in the US in tiny amounts, an Israeli biotech company called Protalix has a solution in the makings that could help ZMapp ramp up production and eventually offer a reasonable treatment to the virus that kills 9 out of 10 people that get infected.

The shares of the company recently surged when it was realized that the Protalix platform could be used to create a novel therapy against Ebola, a worldwide concern.

I interviewed the company in 2010 when it was developing a solution against nerve gas.

Developed through the genetic engineering of carrot cells, their first drug PRX-105 is an enzyme which is based on a molecule licensed to Protalix by Hebrew University’s Yissum, the technology transfer arm of the university in Jerusalem.

The drug was first developed by Prof. Hermona Soreq, the dean of the university’s math and natural sciences department, and by Yissum’s commercial counterpart at Cornell University in the United States.

In addition to its anti-nerve agent drug, the company produces a drug called Uplyso, which is a therapeutic protein-based drug for treating Gaucher disease. This is a genetic illness that is carried in about 1% of all people in the US. As many as 10% of the Jewish Ashkenazi population carry it, putting Jews especially at risk.

Protalix makes its drug inside a genetically altered tobacco plant, which is the same methods in which ZMapp makes its drug.

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Israel’s facilities in the north (address above) are one of few that can mass-produce medicine like ZMapp. It is a factory that makes antibodies using tobacco plants.

Because of the hope, Protalix shares rose by as much as 22% in Tel Aviv Stock Exchange trading yesterday.

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

ZMapp produced in America gained worldwide attention this year as it appeared to have “cured” two Americans who contracted Ebola in Liberia this summer. It is not yet known if they would have recovered without the medication.

Since Protalix is able to genetically engineer tobacco to produce antibodies it could help ZMapp ramp up its supply. The company is already approved by the FDA to treat Gaucher disease.

“In theory, we probably could also produce the antibody used for treating Ebola in our plant cell system,” the CEO 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.

More than 2000 people have died from Ebola to date, while about 4000 people are infected. The rates could be much higher as it’s common for Africans to hide those who are infected from local authorities and healthcare workers.

Ebola is also linked in unusual ways to the way our food is produced and delivered. Read this article about Ebola and chocolate for some stimulating debate on how a disease may be seemingly far from you is actually closer than you might think.

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