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Multi-center effort targets lethal Ebola, Marburg viruses

Mar. 6, 2014, 10:23 AM

Vanderbilt University researchers are collaborating in a multi-center, federally-funded project to develop ways to treat and prevent the highly lethal Ebola and Marburg virus infections.

Thomas Geisbert, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston, is principal investigator of grant AI109711 from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAIAD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

James Crowe Jr., M.D.

His collaborators are James Crowe Jr., M.D., who directs the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center; John Eldridge, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of Profectus Biosciences in Baltimore; Ian MacLachlan, Ph.D., executive vice president of the Canadian firm Tekmira Pharmaceuticals; and UTMB’s Alexander Bukreyev, Ph.D.

The grant will provide up to $26 million over five years to establish a collaborative Center of Excellence for Translational Research (CETR) that will develop and test new vaccines and broad-spectrum treatments for the two filoviruses.

Filoviruses are government-designated “Tier 1” pathogens because they cause hemorrhagic fevers with mortality rates as high as 90 percent. There currently are no vaccines or treatments approved for human use against them.

“Our group will be defining the basic mechanisms by which naturally-occurring antibodies kill Ebola and Marburg viruses,” Crowe said. “The basic science studies on how antibodies recognize and kill filoviruses will point the way toward rational vaccine design and testing for these viruses.

“The research tools we are using, human monoclonal antibodies derived from the blood cells of naturally infected human survivors, also can be developed as prevention and treatment biologic medicines (for use) in the field,” he said.

Crowe, a leading vaccine researcher, is the Ann Scott Carell Professor and professor of Pediatrics and Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

The CETR will comprise three interdependent research projects, supported by a scientific core with biosafety level (BSL-4) facilities, the highest level containment that is required to safely work with the deadly viruses. UTMB has the only operational university-based BSL-4 laboratory in the country.

Geisbert, a member of the UTMB Institute for Human Infections and Immunity and Galveston National Laboratory, is an internationally recognized virologist who has conducted BSL-4 studies involving animals for more than 24 years.

“We are very excited about the new center grant, as it combines three of the most promising post-exposure treatments that have shown the ability to completely protect animals against these deadly viruses,” he said in a news release.

“We are very appreciative of the support we have received from NIAID/NIH and look forward to working with them and with our corporate partners to further develop these most promising interventions for human use,” Geisbert said.

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