At a mere 20 grams and 8 cm in length, the laboratory mouse hardly seems like a weapon against the Ebola virus—a disease whose recent outbreak has claimed hundreds of lives and infected more than two thousand in Western Africa alone.
Yet, this miniature rodent and hundreds of its close relatives have been and will continue to be an integral part of the effort biopharmaceuticals companies have taken to fight Ebola.
In late July 2014, two American aid workers, who had been working in an Ebola Ward in Liberia, contracted the rare and deadly disease. Dr. Kent Brantley, one of the two infected, endured nine days of Ebola-induced symptoms, after which Liberian doctors administered an experimental treatment, known as “ZMapp.” Within a few hours, Brantley’s condition seemed to improve. As of August 21, 2014, both American patients have been reported to be cured of the disease and released from hospital care in Atlanta, GA.
According to the Center for Disease Control, ZMapp is not a vaccine. It is a treatment for Ebola virus currently being developed by Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, a small biopharmaceuticals company based in San Diego, CA. Prior to its administration to the two American aid workers, this drug had never been tested on humans. The bulk of the serum’s research and development had been done on mice.
As a treatment, ZMapp is a cocktail of two separate serums developed by two different biopharmaceutical companies. The first serum, MB-003, was developed by injecting Ebola into mice and extracting the antibodies that the mice produced in response to the disease. This process is known as “monoclonal antibody production.” According to an article published by Ars Technica, it involves extracting the mouse’s antibody-producing cells, cloning the antibody genes, and switching parts of the mouse version of the gene with the human version so as to avoid an averse response from the human immune system upon the treatment’s administration. This would allow the human body to mount an immediate immune defense against the disease.
It certainly is no industry secret that the mouse is a treasured tool in the study and understanding of human disease. From even as far back as the 1600s, when natural philosopher William Harvey used mice to study circulation, the mouse has proven a flexible and affordable research subject in the studies of many researchers and scientists in the past and present. While ZMapp is still only an experimental treatment and requires yet three stages of human trials prior to FDA approval, its success indicates an important leap forward in science’s fight against Ebola virus and other similar lethal diseases. And its success is owed to the 20-g, 8-cm-long lab mouse.