Within four years, a Maryland biotech company is hoping to turn smallpox from a terrible disease into a treatable illness.

BioFactura Inc., a Rockville firm, is developing a smallpox therapy derived from the antibodies of a smallpox survivor that will, they hope, mitigate or even cure the disease.

"Right now there are no therapeutics that have been FDA-approved for smallpox," said Darryl Sampey, BioFactura's chief science officer, referring to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

There is a vaccine, however, because of the relative rarity of the disease it is no longer given to the general population, making the possibility of an outbreak very dangerous.

The therapy, which uses a survivor's antibodies, was originally created by the U.S. Army's Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. BioFactura is working to perfect the therapy into an effective commercial treatment.

Once BioFactura has refined the therapy, it will be handed off to the University of Maryland, College Park's Bioprocess Scale-Up Facility, where scientists will work to develop large quantities of the medicine.

"We're going to test the recipe to make sure it works," said Ben Woodard, director of the biotechnology industry program at the university.

"It's like baking a Duncan Hines cake for 4 million people," Woodard said. He likened the intricacies of the production expansion to figuring out how many eggs the giant cake would need.

The therapy will eventually move to FDA animal trials, and will tentatively be ready for the market in four years, Sampey said.

Smallpox no longer occurs naturally in humans, the last known natural case was in 1977, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The only known samples of the virus exist in laboratories in the United States and Russia. The possibility that the remaining virus could be turned into a biological weapon of some kind is why therapies are being developed.

Smallpox is very contagious. The disease can be sprayed into the air and spread by prolonged face-to-face contact or contact with infected bedding or clothing, according to the CDC.

"It could be like a wildfire," Sampey said.

After infection, the virus takes between seven and 17 days to incubate, according to the CDC. Then flu-like symptoms will appear, followed by the appearance of small red dots that eventually become pus-filled and painful. About 30 percent of those who contract smallpox die.

Even in the early 1950's, the virus was infecting about 50 million people worldwide annually, according to the World Health Organization.

"It's killed hundreds of millions of people," Sampey said. "It's a terrible disease."

The Capital News Service contributed to this report.