UTMB collaborates on program targeting potential bioterrorist pathogens Ebola and Marburg

March 5th, 2014
The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Profectus Biosciences, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center have been awarded up to $26 million to advance treatments of the highly lethal hemorrhagic fever viruses Ebola and Marburg.

These filoviruses are considered "Tier 1" pathogens by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, meaning they are considered agents with the highest risk of being deliberately misused by bioterrorists to cause mass casualties and produce devastating effects to the economy, critical infrastructure and public confidence.

There are no vaccines or treatments approved for human use against filoviruses, and infection causes high mortality rates that range between 50 and 90 percent.

The researchers will develop and test new vaccines and broad spectrum treatments to address this critical problem.

The award, to 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, is a collaborative Center of Excellence for Translational Research grant supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. The grant funds will be distributed over five years.

Geisbert is an internationally recognized virologist, with more than 24 years of hands-on experience performing BSL-4 studies involving animals.

"We are very excited about this new 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," said Geisbert.

"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 will collaborate with John H. Eldridge of Profectus Biosciences, Ian MacLachlan of Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corporation, James E. Crowe Jr. of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and with Alexander Bukreyev of UTMB.

"Our group will define the basic mechanisms by which naturally occurring antibodies kill Ebola and Marburg viruses," said Crowe, who directs the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center. "This study on how antibodies recognize and kill filoviruses will point the way toward rational vaccine design and testing.

"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 that could be used in the field," he said.

The center will conduct three interdependent research projects, supported by the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB, a facility with the highest level containment required to safely work with deadly viruses, biosafety level four. UTMB has the only operational BSL-4 laboratory on a university campus in the United States.

"We look forward to combining our vaccines with both Tekmira's therapeutics and the antibodies developed at Vanderbilt," said Eldridge, chief science officer of Profectus' vaccine division. "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."

All the investigators are involved with a variety of patents related to the development of countermeasures against infectious diseases.

Provided by University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

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