When news broke last week of a Southern California firm’s experimental treatment for Ebola, pioneering biophysicist Richard Cone quietly celebrated from his office at Johns Hopkins University. He emailed congratulations to the two former protégés who’d developed the medicine, then allowed himself to dream again.
Cone, 78, runs an esteemed laboratory where for three decades he’s been trying to develop a cheap, easy-to-apply antibody treatment for women to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. It's been arduous, idealistic work that has never attracted investment from venture capitalists or pharmaceutical companies. But he kept at it and learned to accept that he probably wouldn’t live to see his life goal realized.
All the while, he watched those former students, Kevin Whaley and Larry Zeitlin, who left his lab in 1999 and went on to form Mapp Biopharmaceutical, where they pursued plants as a way to cheaply and quickly reproduce those antibodies. He rooted them on as they expanded their research to include pathogens that could be used in bioterrorism, such as Ebola, drawing the kind of government attention, and money, that he could only imagine.
Interest in the company suddenly exploded last week, after Mapp allowed two American aid workers infected with Ebola to be treated with its cocktail of antibodies, grown in genetically engineered tobacco plants, that had yet to be tried on humans. The aid workers are reportedly improving, but there’s no way to tell yet whether the drug, ZMapp, deserves credit.
The way Cone sees it, if ZMapp is shown to be successful, it could lead to a stronger push for “plantibodies” research, not only for Ebola medicine, but also for the “sperm and germ” treatment he has chased for decades.
“I was thinking this was going to go on long after I died,” Cone said in a telephone interview Monday while vacationing in Cape Cod. “But this is getting to the point where I can imagine the topical application in my lifetime. It’s been a long dream.”
If Cone is envious of Whaley and Zeitlin, he doesn’t betray it. Their 1999 split, he says, was not completely amicable. But that was a long time ago. A relentless optimist who wears Birkenstocks to work and sports a silvery Quaker-style beard, Cone believes in doing research that will ultimately benefit the largest amount of people — even if it takes a side road to exotic diseases. "We all have the same goal," he said.
Today he speaks of the younger men with pride.
“I knew it was going to work,” Cone said of Whaley and Zeitlin’s Ebola research. But he expected it to take several more years for them to prove themselves. The Ebola outbreak, Cone said, “jumps the whole thing way forward.”
In an email, Zeitlin said he and Whaley still collaborated with Cone on their original project. "Richard has been both a mentor and a wonderful colleague," Zeitlin wrote. "His passion and deep, deep intellect are an inspiration to all who know and love him."
Cone hasn’t talked to his former students since ZMapp became international news. “I just sent them the emails,” he said. “I didn’t want to waste their time. I just said, 'good luck.' And hopefully those two patients will recover.”
Next week, Cone will return to his lab, and continue his work. And he'll attend a gathering of researchers working on STD prevention and contraception. Whaley and Zeitlin are expected to be there, too.