Researchers work in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) suits in the Galveston National Lab, the only fully operational BSL-4 Lab on an academic campus in the country. (Photo courtesy of UTMB)
By Bayan Raji | Texas Medical Center News
A collaborative effort involving the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston and three other entities aims to develop vaccines and treatments for the Ebola and Marburg viruses with the help of a federal grant worth up to $26 million.
The National Institutes of Health awarded UTMB, Profectus Biosciences, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center the sizable grant, which will be doled out over five years.
Thomas Geisbert, Ph.D., a professor in UTMB’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, will lead the research at UTMB.
Ebola and Marburg, also called 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.
“The government realized a number of years ago, some of these agents are rare, but are high threats if they were to get into the wrong hands,” Geisbert said.
Not just any building can house such dangerous pathogens and the typical path to licensure is not feasible in this case.
UTMB has the only operational Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratory on a university campus in the United States.
“There’s always been a kind of association between academia and cutting-edge research and I think there’s a goal there in putting a facility like this on an academic campus,” Geisbert said.
Over the next five years, the grant recipients will work side-by-side as they test and optimize existing drugs with proven efficacy in animals to create a single drug that can be used in humans as a treatment for infected patients and a vaccine to prevent the disease.
“We really want one single treatment that covers a broad spectrum of filoviruses, and I think it is possible,” Geisbert said. “It’s a challenge for sure. We have different treatments right now that can protect against any one strain or species, but there hasn’t really been a lot done for post-exposure to have one treatment that works against all of these different strains.” There are five different species of Ebola and two major strains for Marburg.
Prior to joining UTMB in 2010, Geisbert spent 23 years working for the United States Army and co-discovered the Ebola Reston virus, one of the species of Ebola.
Geisbert has worked with Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and Profectus Biosciences and said both companies have had great success protecting animals against the virus. He said the grant provides an opportunity for a “natural continuation” of previous efforts.
Working with such dangerous pathogens requires tight security measures. With good reason. The Ebola virus has a mortality rate of up to 90 percent, he said, which is why Geisbert is working so fervently toward a treatment.
Each day after arriving to work, Geisbert sips his coffee and catches up on email, much like many of us do. However, when it’s time to get down to business, he walks out of his office and through no fewer than four secured doors that require a card badge or fingerprint to get from one side to the other.
Finally, Geisbert reaches the change area where he removes his street clothes, puts on medical scrubs before walking into another secured room where he puts on a “space suit,” enters a personalized identification number and then enters the work area.
When it’s time to leave, he goes through similar security precautions, including a nine-minute rinse cycle while wearing the space suit, followed by a personal shower before he is able to put on his street clothes once again. “There are redundant security measures taken,” Geisbert said. “It’s like extra insurance policies on top of insurance policies to ensure nothing could get out of the lab.”
While the government’s top priority with this research is to have a treatment available in the event of a bioterrorist attack, Geisbert anticipates other benefits to his work.
Virus outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages of Central or West Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
“Like a lot of us who do this for a living, I would hope if we develop these countermeasures, we would see them shared with humanitarian efforts,” he said.
Enhanced electron micrographs of Ebola virus. (Photo courtesy of UTMB)