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Grant targets new therapies for Ebola, Marburg viruses

May. 16, 2013, 9:33 AM

Vanderbilt’s James Crowe Jr., M.D., and a collaborator in Texas have been awarded a $4.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study new ways to treat and prevent Ebola and Marburg viruses.

The Marburg and Ebola viruses are greatly feared both for their death rates, which can be upward of 80 percent, and for the dramatic course of their illnesses, which includes bleeding from multiple locations and multi-organ system failure. They can pass to humans from an animal vector, and are spread from person to person by blood contact.

James Crowe Jr., M.D.

The Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, directed by Crowe, has developed advanced technology for making human monoclonal antibodies and is well known for isolating and producing monoclonal antibodies from survivors of the 1918 flu pandemic and other viral epidemics. In this case, Crowe and colleagues will work to isolate antibodies from the blood cells of people who have survived Marburg or Ebola virus hemorrhagic fevers.

“We have received more than 1,000 blood cell samples from about 30 now-healthy people in Uganda who survived Ebola there, and from an interesting case of a Colorado woman who contracted Marburg viral illness while on a trip to Uganda in 2008.

“It’s believed she was exposed to the virus by bats as she explored the Python Cave there, which contains millions of bats. She is the only known case in the U.S. and we have already been able to isolate more than 30 monoclonal antibodies from her blood,” Crowe said.

A priority, Crowe said, will be developing prevention or treatment options for people who come in close contact with Ebola and Marburg patients, including health care workers, who in the past have died from exposure to their patients.

The lab is still awaiting samples from the Congo and Gabon to ensure they are covering all of the known Ebola and Marburg viral strains. Vanderbilt will not be working with the live viruses themselves. Alexander Bukreyev, Ph.D., from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, will work with the viral strains in a biosafety facility (level 4) in UTMB’s Galveston National Laboratory. Ultimately the goal is to test the effectiveness of human antibodies as both preventive and treatment measures in animal models.

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