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Ebola Researcher on Experimental Treatment: "I Would Take It Myself in a Heartbeat"

One of 25 labs across the globe working to solve the mystery of the Ebola virus is right here in La Jolla

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As NBC 7's Omari Fleming reports, the work at the Scripps Research Institute appears to have helped save the lives of the two Americans. (Published Friday, Aug 8, 2014)

A La Jolla lab is on the front lines of the fight against the Ebola Virus.

The outbreak in West Africa has killed at least 961 people and prompted the World Health Organization to declare an international public health emergency.

On the other side of the world from ground zero, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla are looking at how the Ebola virus attaches to parts of the body and how it multiplies and replicates.

Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire is part of the team spanning 25 labs across the globe that is making images of how the virus works.

Their work that has led to a medicine taken by two Americans infected with Ebola. The Sorrento Valley lab Mapp Bio used the images created at Scripps to come up with the experimental medicine called Z-Mapp.

Saphire works as director with the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium, a global partnership with labs at Tulane University, Harvard and on the ground in Sierra Leone. She spoke to NBC 7 Thursday about the virus she’s worked on for 10 years.

Saphire says the cocktail of antibodies and proteins worked in mice and primates but wasn't supposed to be tested on humans until 2015.

"I know exactly what’s in it, how it works. I would take it myself in a heartbeat," she said.

While ZMapp provides hope, the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the federal government is looking "very carefully" at experimental Ebola treatments. It's too early to tell whether they are helpful or even safe.

Even so, Mapp Bio is ramping up production, Saphire said, and they’re working with all the regulatory agencies involved.

Using a model Erica Ollman Saphire, Ph.D. shows how Z-Mapp's three antibodies (the colored pieces) attack the Ebola virus.

“The logistics of making more are straightforward and solvable,” Saphire said.

The antibodies are made using tobacco leaves that are then put into a giant juicer. Scientists then strain the antibodies from the juice.

“That whole process would take about two or three months,” she said, adding that researchers need “time and the funds to do it and are expediting the process. You can believe it’s a priority.”

The antibodies in Z-Mapp were developed by Mapp Bio, the U.S. Army and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Mapp Bio has been operating for 11 years. In all, there are nine employees.

ZMapp is not FDA-approved. Its use was granted under the FDA's "compassionate use" clause, only given in extraordinary circumstances, and there are only a handful of doses of it available. "I know exactly what’s in it, how it works. I would take it myself in a heartbeat," Scripps Research Institute Professor Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire

The two American aid workers who were flown to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and received doses of ZMapp – Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol – are said to be getting a little better every day after their treatment.

The current outbreak in West Africa is the largest and longest ever recorded of Ebola, which has a death rate of about 50 percent and has so far killed at least 961 people.

The WHO declared similar emergencies for the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and for polio in May.

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