ASU's connection to the new Ebola drug

August 5, 2014

Charlie Arntzen has worked tirelessly on new platforms to deliver drugs. He has focused on plant-based drug delivery systems, testing a wide range of plants as possible “manufacturing platforms” for therapeutics for the developing world.

Now Arntzen, an ASU Regents' Professor in the School of Life Sciences and founding director of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, may have hit on an unlikely combination of using tobacco as a way to make and deliver a promising treatment for the Ebola virus. man holding tobacco plant in lab greenhouse Download Full Image

That treatment already may have saved the lives of two aid workers infected with the virus, with the continuing recovery of Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol from the deadly virus.

“This is an incredible step for plant biology and biotechnology,” said Arntzen of the successful use of the therapeutic on the two missionaries.

Arntzen is quick to point out that the drug itself was developed by researchers at Mapp Biopharmaceutical in San Diego. Researchers there had been working with Arntzen’s team at ASU, and with a team at Kentucky BioProcessing, on the treatment called ZMapp.

Kentucky BioProcessing is where ZMapp, the cocktail of antibodies that were injected into Brantly and Writebol, is produced. The antibodies are produced in specially modified tobacco plants. The plants are harvested, ground up into a green liquid, purified and turned into tiny doses of the drug.

Arntzen has worked with Mapp Biopharmaceutical for 15 years on the idea of plant-based therapeutics, with the work eventually focusing on the Ebola virus and receiving funding through the U.S. Army. The work steadily progressed over several years when, suddenly, the two Americans became infected in the worst outbreak of Ebola.

“The stars were aligned,” said Arntzen, who has studied plant-based drug delivery for 20 years. “We had some of the serum available, we had risk takers in the government willing to use the drugs and we had two patients who consented to its use.”

“It’s extremely gratifying,” said Arntzen, who adds that notoriety for a scientist is usually limited to publication of a scientific paper or presenting findings at a conference of peers. “It’s astonishing and rewarding as a biologist to see a straight line from a technology to the saving of two lives.”

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications


ASU student wins graduate scholarship to study media design in Canada

August 6, 2014

Anna Witcraft, who graduated in May from Arizona State University's Graphic Information Technology program, has won a prestigious scholarship to pursue a master's degree in Canada.

The award of $26,500 a year for two years is funded through Alberta Innovates Technology Futures, a research and innovation system that encourages interaction of government, industry and academia to develop solutions to global challenges. It will allow Witcraft to pursue a master of science degree in computational media design at the University of Calgary. ASU student Anna Witcraft at graduation Download Full Image

The Graphic Information Technology program is housed in the Polytechnic School, one of ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

Laurie Ralston, a lecturer in the program who wrote a recommendation letter for Witcraft, said Witcraft understands the principals of design while also excelling in technical computing skills.

“She is an intelligent, thoughtful and creative individual,” Ralston wrote. “She has a unique mixture of intellect, technical knowledge and artistic ability that have been apparent in every one of my classes.”

Witcraft decided on grad school during winter break and started looking at programs on the West Coast. Eventually, she found the Calgary program, a thesis program that married art and computer science. But she had only 15 days to apply for the scholarship.

She received an e-mail telling her of the award earlier than she expected, and feared it was a rejection.

“When I called my parents to tell them, my Dad picked up,” she said. “I told them to both get on the phone. They asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I told them I got the scholarship and they screamed so loudly that I went deaf in one ear.”

Witcraft said she is the first in her immediate family to go to grad school, and that her parents are a bit skeptical, but she is convinced the additional credentials will help her in her career. Her mother is an actuary and her father was a pilot for DHL Express.

Witcraft was also happy about the Canadian program because her boyfriend, Kelen Rosine, also a student at the Polytechnic School, is from Calgary, and she can live with his parents while attending school.

Witcraft and Rosine met at a Halloween party when Witcraft, who is a hockey fan like her father, recognized the Calgary Flames jersey Rosine was wearing. Rosine will graduate next May with a degree in electrical engineering.

Witcraft is still refining her thesis idea, but her goal is to study how to improve communication between families and loved ones in assisted living. She will work with Anthony Tang, an assistant professor in Calgary’s computer science department.

Witcraft felt compelled to help make a change after visiting Rosine’s grandmother in assisted living and doing some research on the increasing numbers of dementia patients. Alzheimer's Disease International predicts the number of cases will triple from more than 44 million today to 135 million by 2050.

“I was inspired to try to help connect families with loved ones after visiting the assisted living facility and seeing how difficult it is for people to stay in contact,” Witcraft said. “I want to make a software system to make it easier.”

Witcraft started college at the University of North Dakota, majoring in accounting, but she missed the creativity of the artwork she had done in high school. She thought graphic design would be a better fit, and started looking at programs at UND, Boston and Arizona State University. She thought ASU would be too big. But when she visited the Polytechnic campus, she loved it. She lived on campus and worked in the advising office.

“I started in gaming, but after one semester, I switched to digital publishing,” Witcraft said.

She did an internship with Softpoint LLC, working on applications for the hospitality industry that allow hotels, restaurants and retail outlets to talk to each other. She also worked with a group of students to create a logo for their on-campus car-detailing business.

She said she enjoyed her business management classes, and thinks that one day, after gaining corporate experience, she might create her own startup.