UTMB receives grant to combat highly-lethal hemorrhagic fever viruses

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Profectus Biosciences, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Mapp Biopharmaceutical and Genevant Sciences Corp. have been awarded up to $35 million to advance the development of rapid-acting vaccines and broad-spectrum treatments of the highly-lethal hemorrhagic fever viruses Ebola and Marburg.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers both Ebola and Marburg to be Tier 1 pathogens, meaning they are 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 unprecedented 2013-16 epidemic of Ebola in West Africa resulting in over 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths demonstrated the ability of filoviruses to emerge in new regions.

The recent 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, is to continue a highly successful collaborative Center of Excellence for Translational Research 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 29 years of hands-on experience performing BSL-4 studies, which require the highest level of biosafety containment.

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 continue to develop and test new vaccines and broad spectrum treatments to address this critical problem.

"We are very excited about this new grant that focuses on developing a rapid acting vaccine as well as combining several 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 grateful for 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, James E. Crowe Jr. of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Larry Zeitlin of Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Inc., James Heyes of Genevant Sciences Corp., and with Alexander Bukreyev of UTMB.

"Naturally occurring human monoclonal antibodies isolated from the white blood cells of survivors are exciting molecules for prevention and treatment of filovirus infections," said Crowe, who directs the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center. "The antibodies can be used as biological drugs, and they also reveal the protective portions of the viral antigens that can be targeted by rational vaccines."

The CETR will conduct three interdependent research projects, supported by the Galveston National Laboratory at UTMB. The GNL has been operational for 10 years and serves as an important resource in the global fight against infectious diseases.

"We look forward to determining the onset of protection provided by our vaccines," said Eldridge, chief science officer of Profectus' vaccine division. "Ebola and Marburg are both highly pathogenic, rapidly progressing infections with narrow windows for intervention."

"RNAi is a powerful tool in the fight against filoviruses and infectious disease, and Genevant's nucleic acid delivery platforms help unlock its full potential. We look forward to a productive collaborative effort with UTMB and the other exciting technologies involved." Said Heyes, senior vice president for technology development at Genevant.

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

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