A professor at Arizona State University, Arntzen is considered the godfather of a growing field of research sometimes called “pharming”: engineering plants to produce specialized vaccines and other drugs. ZMapp, an injectable synthetic serum he helped devise using genetically engineered antibodies grown in tobacco plants, is currently the most promising drug treatment for people infected with Ebola.
ZMapp still wasn’t approved for human use when it was given to two American health care workers who had been infected in Liberia last year, and Arntzen didn’t even find out about the real-life trial until after the fact. But by the time he got the news, the patients were showing rapid improvement, “which was very exciting,” he says. Both recovered.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pledged up to $42 million in funding to speed the development of more serum. By February, there was enough supplies to begin clinical trials in Liberia and the U.S. Although the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has slowed, the threat of recurrence is real–and the risk of similar epidemics may be increasing. Pharming, which is now getting support from Big Pharma, could be the key to responding to future threats, providing a large supply of drugs or vaccines at epidemic speed.
What is one thing about your job that you think would surprise people?
That the dominant part of basic research is failure–that is, failure of an experiment to work the way we anticipated. Development of new drugs or vaccines usually starts with an observation that looks exciting, but gets more complex as we move from molecular biology into preclinical testing. It is not surprising that it takes a dozen years or more to develop a new pharmaceutical.
What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?
Go out to the driving range and hit golf balls for an hour. Fortunately, my home office is five minutes from the range.
Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?
Agricultural innovation. I grew up on a farm, and am fascinated by the role technology has played in ensuring that the global food supply is meeting the world’s population growth. I believe reasonably priced and safe food is a human right, and the quest to find ways to achieve this while not cutting down the world’s rainforests (or other forms of environmental damage) is one of society’s noblest activities. Albeit, one that is “out of the public eye” since it continues to be so successful.