By Janice Arenofsky
Photo: Courtesy Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University
After Charles Arntzen (B.S. ’65, M.S. ‘67) developed ZMapp, the first effective pharmaceutical treatment for Ebola, the plant geneticist and founder of the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute was lauded as one of the world’s most creative scientists and the godfather of “pharming,” producing affordable drugs from plants.
But Arntzen credits “enthusiastic naïveté” for his success, and he has the paperweight to prove it: a desk accessory his wife bequeathed that bears the pithy assertion, “A true scientist never loses the faculty of amazement.” Arntzen says his commitment to curiosity and the outstanding mentorship he received from Minnesota faculty steered him to where he is today. “I changed my major four times,” he recalls. Fortunately, his horticulture professors, Albert Linck and William Cunningham, pointed him toward science specialization. “I understood that if you get the basic tools of science in college, you can apply it to something useful—maybe go out and save the world.”
Arntzen began doing just that in the ‘80s and ‘90s, first at DuPont and then Texas A&M. Hitching his agri-biotech know-how to the quixotic dream of producing low-cost medicine for developing countries, he started converting tobacco plants into antibody factories. In 1992 he genetically engineered the Hepatitis B antibody. He’s been making vaccines from plants ever since.
But in 2002, one year after 9/11, his idea really took off. The U.S. Army’s Operation Bioshield program awarded Arntzen a $3.7 million grant to develop defensive pharmaceutical strategies against bioterrorism, such as using Ebola as a weapon. That galvanized the drug industry and in 2005—two years after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota—Arntzen and his ASU team, working at breakneck speed, created the experimental drug ZMapp from synthetic antibodies. By the time the Ebola epidemic hit West Africa in 2014, ZMapp had been used in monkeys and was in Liberia for stability testing. “I did not anticipate anyone receiving this therapy for two to three years,” says Arntzen. But as it turned out, ZMapp was hurried to two grievously ill American missionaries—and they survived. “It’s not proven yet,” he says, ”but in my judgment, those people would have died,” Arntzen says.
ZMapp is now undergoing human clinical trials bolstered by a $50 million bulk manufacturing contract from the federal government. Arntzen calls this “one of the most satisfying times of my career,” but he’s not stopping. Though semiretired, he intends to develop at least one more plant-derived drug in the next five years: a vaccine for enteric disease, a severe gastrointestinal infection that kills approximately 550,000 young children in developing countries each year.
“I have the cumulative knowledge to do something useful,” Arntzen says in his understated way. “Our current drugs are totally unavailable to 85 percent of the world’s people, and we can dramatically change that through pharming. That’s really cool.”