UTMB Part of Research Collaboration Targeting Potential Bioterrorist Pathogens Ebola and Marburg

bioterrorismMillions of dollars have already been invested into medical research in order to develop therapeutic solutions for some of the most deadly, currently “incurable” diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and cancer. Now, researchers and drug developers alike have begun to focus more resources on targeting the rise of Hemorrhagic fever caused by the Ebola and Marburg viruses. These viruses are prevalent in Central and Western Africa, and prove fatal in 90% of the cases. In addition to Ebola and Marburg being viruses that can be contracted naturally, they are also regarded as potent agents of bioterrorism and “Tier 1″ pathogens as labelled by the US Department of Health and Human Sciences, in that they pose a constant threat in terms of being misused deliberately to cause mass casualties and hamper public safety.

Research towards finding a cure for these infections is currently being spearheaded by the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, in partnership with Profectus Biosciences, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. According to a recent report, a 5-year, $26 million grant will fund a study to be conducted by a group of scientists led by Dr. Thomas Geisbert, a professor in UTMB’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology and a member of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and Galveston National Laboratory, along with John H. Eldridge (of Profectus Biosciences, an eminent virologist with over 24 years of hands on experience) , Ian MacLachlan (of Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation), James E. Crowe Jr. (of Vanderbilt University Medical Center), and with Alexander Bukreyev (of UTMB). The study will focus on the basic mechanisms by which naturally occurring antibodies combat the viral pathogens. It is being funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infection (a part of the National Institute of Health).

It’s with noting that UTMB, which houses the only BioSafety Level 4 (BSL 4) laboratory on university premises, has recently been a part of two other federal research grants related to finding a therapeutic cure against Ebola and Marburg viral infections. Both Dr.  Geisbert and Prof. Bukreyev have been a part of the team, along with professor Thomas Ksiazek (also from UTMB) and James E. Crowe Jr. (of Vanderbilt University Medical Center), which involved an $1.8 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (also a 5 year project) to investigate human immune responses to Ebola and Marburg infections, and a $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a needle free aerosol vaccine designed to protect against both viruses. In all these studies, monoclonal antibodies derived from blood samples of survivors of these infections were used.

According to a statement by John H. Eldridge, chief science officer of Profectus’ vaccine division, ”We look forward to combining our vaccines with both Tekmira’s therapeutics and the antibodies developed at Vanderbilt. Ebola and Marburg are both highly pathogenic, rapidly progressing infections with narrow windows for intervention. We are confident a combined approach will be more successful for treating these infections.”

Along with the efforts made in the United States, there has been considerable research being done at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, a part of Canada’s Public Health Agency. A report from October 2013 says that a study headed by Gary Kobinger had successfully used a combination of three antibodies in treating a group of rhesus and cynomologus monkeys within 72 hours of infection of the Ebola Zaire virus, said to be the deadliest strain. A key element in this antibody mixture was interferon alpha (which is released naturally in immune response to infections). Banking on this he had even proposed a phase 1 clinical trial to prove its action on humans as well.

Another significant report has been from Sina Bavari of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) has suggested the successful use of the drug BCX 4430 (by BioCryst Pharma) in treating Ebola and Marburg infections.

With all these advances towards treating the most deadly infections, here’s hoping we get a cure for the so called “incurable” diseases!

About Sreetama Dutt

Sreetama Dutt studied biotechnology at SRM Institute of Science and Technology, and did her Masters in medical microbiology at University of Manchester in Manchester, UK. She is a science columnist for BioNews Texas.
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