ASU professor named 'most creative person' by Fast Company for Ebola drug research

May 11, 2015

Arizona State University Biodesign Institute researcher Charles Arntzen has been chosen as the No. 1 honoree among Fast Company’s annual “100 Most Creative People in Business” for his leadership role in developing ZMapp, a therapeutic produced in tobacco to fight Ebola.

“I never anticipated we would get ZMapp into human testing for another three or four years, and suddenly, the urgency of the situation in West Africa was upon us,” said Arntzen, who attended a star-studded Fast Company gala in Hollywood that feted the 2015 honorees, including scientists, actors, musicians, artists and entrepreneurs. ASU Regents' Professor Charles Arntzen Download Full Image

With no known vaccine or cure available, more than 10,000 have now perished throughout West Africa, a humanitarian crisis created by the worst Ebola epidemic in history.

During the height of the outbreak, two American missionaries became infected. Physician Kent Brantly and health care worker Nancy Writebol, both near death and desperate for help, became the first people to receive ZMapp, knowing full well that it had never been tested in humans before.

Within 24 hours, Brantly was walking again, and both have fully recovered. “It was astonishing how effective this new therapeutic was, and this is snowballing now,” said Arntzen, who is convinced ZMapp works. “It’s now in human trials in West Africa and has captured all sorts of attention.”

Little was known of ZMapp at the time, or how it originally sprung from the minds of creative scientists like Artnzen and his collaborators more than a decade ago at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

ZMapp is a serum made in a plant with a notorious reputation as a killer, tobacco. The pathway from discovery to treatment began with an idea Arntzen had to produce low-cost vaccines in plants to fight devastating infectious diseases in the developing world.

Fighting Ebola with Tobacco Charles Arntzen from Biodesign Institute at ASU on Vimeo.

Then, after 9/11 and the anthrax attack on the U.S. Senate, the government invested heavily in biodefense, including $3.7 million to Arntzen and a small San Diego-based startup led by Larry Zeitlin and Kevin Whaley, Mapp Biopharmaceutical. The goal was to develop plant-based defenses against pathogens, including Ebola, that could be used as potential biological threats.

With a dream team of collaborators, they modified the tobacco plants to produce a protective cocktail made of three monoclonal antibodies. This therapeutic cocktail proved to be 100 percent effective in protecting animals against Ebola, even five days after exposure.

“We’ve been teaming together manufacturing innovation, tobacco engineering innovation, our virus work and antibody discoveries,” said Arntzen. “I’m guessing, just in the development of ZMapp, there were about 100 different people with a 100 different skills who came together.”

ZMapp is the leading candidate for a drug treatment to fight Ebola, but because it was experimental, there were only enough doses to save a few. In response, the government has awarded a $25 million contract to Mapp for the massive scale-up desperately needed to stockpile enough of the drug and safeguard against another possible outbreak.

Now, commercial partner Kentucky BioProcessing has produced enough ZMapp for the necessary clinical trials in Liberia to begin.

“For the last decade, a huge part of my role has just been a cheerleader. We’ve just found we’ve been able to lower the level of inertia to get over barriers to work together,” said Arntzen. “It’s been a creative wonderland within the Biodesign Institute that has allowed us to chase ideas that maybe initially, sounded a little crazy, but bring together the parts to make them a reality.”

Creativity and Biodesign Charles Arntzen from Biodesign Institute at ASU on Vimeo.

Artntzen’s Biodesign colleagues who were a core part of the team, including Qiang “Shawn” Chen, Hugh Mason and Tsafrir Mor, continue to pursue plant-based vaccines and therapeutics to combat West Nile virus, dengue fever, nerve agents and even cancer.

Their pursuits are emblematic of the more than 400 creative scientists and students at the Biodesign Institute who have made groundbreaking discoveries including: linking gut microbial composition to autism, identifying diseases like cancer at its earliest stages, generating renewable energy and making polluted water and soil clean, all with the goal of advancing global health, energy and the environment.

A full feature of Arntzen and the development of ZMapp appears in the new issue of Fast Company, available online and on newsstands May 19.

Charles Arntzen is the ASU Florence Ely Nelson Presidential Endowed Chair and a Regents’ Professor in the School of Life Sciences within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He served as the Founding Director of The Biodesign Institute until May, 2003, and as Co-Director of Biodesign’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology of that Institute until 2007. 

Tsarir Mor, Hugh Mason and Qiang “Shawn” Chen are associate professors in the School of Life Sciences within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and researchers in the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology. 

Joe Caspermeyer

Managing editor, Biodesign Institute


ASU design student improves conditions for refugees

May 11, 2015

ASU 2015 commencement banner

Taylor Loutsis has been an undergraduate student for the past eight years. Design student Taylor Loutsis Download Full Image

In that time, he has attended three universities, declared six majors and traveled across multiple continents.

“I’m extraordinarily impulsive,” Loutsis said. “So I saw something shiny, in a sense, and I just ran for it. But that shiny wasn’t materialistic, it was more like curiosity.”

This month, Loutsis will graduate with a Bachelor of Science in design in graphic design from The Design School in the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, but for this self-motivated, 25-year-old changemaker, the degree is just the beginning.

The journey

Loutsis’ story begins in Seattle, where he was born and raised.

“When I was a little kid, I would ask my dad for a pile of dirt so I could make a city,” he said. “I would make these giant earth cities with lakes and pipes, I would make houses out of shoeboxes. I didn’t really put it together until this year, but I was super interested in designing things or making things that represented space.”

Loutsis started his undergrad at Washington State University, but it wasn’t until he got into the design program at Arizona State University that things began to fall into place, partially because he spent so much time exploring. One summer Loutsis earned an artist residency in New York, another summer he took an internship in Germany, and one semester he studied abroad in Singapore.

“While I’ve been at ASU I‘ve had the opportunity and tools to do an excessive amount of exploring in a short period of time to really fine-tune what I want to do,” Loutsis said. “That paired with the fact that our studio is exposed to all the design disciplines at once. You’re going through the hallways and you see industrial design or you see architecture. It’s like a cross-pollination.”

This exposure to other disciplines within The Design School was essential for Loutsis’ most notable project during his undergraduate career, Erasing Boundaries.

Erasing Boundaries

“On June 20, the Associated Press released an article that there were over 50 million people displaced globally for the first time since WWII,” Loutsis said. “That article connected all the dots for me. For the graphic design program, you have to pick a social issue for your final project, and I knew I wanted to do something architecture-related. So it was like OK – refugee camp housing, architecture, social issue – it just made sense.”

But Loutsis knew he couldn’t tackle such a large issue with his skill set alone. He met with his program director, Al Sanft, and proposed a project that would bring in the help of a civil engineering student from University of Portland, an architecture student from Pratt Institute in New York, an industrial design student and an anthropology student from ASU.

The team Skyped once a week during the semester, and gradually Erasing Boundaries began to take shape. The multidisciplinary project reimagines housing in the Kiziba refugee camp in Rwanda, which has a population of 17,500. 

The group has worked closely with Kigabo Mbazumutima, a doctor from the West African Republic of Benin who survived the genocide and has been instrumental in connecting Loutsis and his peers to the local refugee community in Arizona.

“We’ve learned that one of the biggest issues with refugee camps in Africa is that there are multiple tribes with different languages – so there’re language barriers from within,” Loutsis said. “Part of our concept is erasing the boundaries within the refugee camps.”

Aside from being the initiator of the project, Loutsis created the branding, the book, the exhibit design and the video for Erasing Boundaries.

“Graphics are so important because they unify the project, they make it more cohesive,” Loutsis said.

Next steps

After graduation, Loutsis is moving back to Seattle. He already has a job lined up at Arscentia, a company that specializes in exhibition design and design of retail space. He also has applied to join the committee for urban development of the city, and he has signed up for woodworking and metalworking classes on the weekends.

But, he noted reassuringly, Erasing Boundaries isn’t going away just yet.

“That was what was so beautiful about this experience – it showed that this type of project could be executed without having to be together,” Loutsis said.

In August, Loutsis and the other members of the group are traveling with Mbazumutima to his home village to do a site analysis of potential locations for a new community space that might take the form of anything from a health clinic to a school. The group is applying for a substantial grant to help ensure that these designs can one day become a reality.

“There are so many question marks,” Loutsis said. “But we’ve definitely gained the trust of the refugee community here. They know we’ve already invested a few hundred hours into this out of our own will. That’s the most magical part about it – there’s already been that emotional bond.”

In the end, all of Loutsis’ experimenting at ASU paid off, and he was able to discover a path towards his ideal career.

“My dream is to get a masters in architecture at Yale,” he said. “They do their first year in pro bono and they’re more about storytelling and conceptual design, so it seems like a good fit for me.”

As always, he remains invested in making sure there is a link between graphic design, architecture and all of the different design disciplines.

“But I want to take at least five years off,” Loutsis added. “Eight years of undergrad is a long time.”

Communications Program Coordinator, ASU Art Museum