As the worst recorded Ebola outbreak in history sweeps across West Africa, hope for a cure is centering on scientists thousands of miles away at the Galveston National Laboratory, where researchers are working on three of the most promising potential cures.
The National Lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has been awarded $6 million from the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Department to develop cures for Ebola and the equally deadly Marburg virus, the school said last week.
The Ebola virus that has infected more than 1,000 people in West Africa and killed more than 700 is a new strain, which could complicate efforts to develop a cure, said Scott Weaver, the National Lab’s scientific director.
The outbreak is the longest-lasting and most widespread Ebola outbreak recorded, Weaver said, and cases are being reported for the first time in highly populated cities.
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The National Laboratory is the only academic lab in the country rated at Level 4, meaning it is equipped to research the deadliest biological agents known because of the safeguards in place. Weaver said scientists at the National Laboratory have been working with the Ebola virus for 10 years, making them a natural choice to pursue the cures.
In the four-story Galveston facility, workers must wear thick protective garments and headgear that looks like spacesuits when entering the part of the lab where the viruses are kept. Most of an entire floor is jammed with equipment to filter the air and ensure that the air pressure is lower inside the building than outside so that particles cannot escape through vents.
In Africa, two U.S. aid workers, including a Texas doctor, have contracted Ebola, and chances are good that a traveler infected with the disease could enter the United States.“I think that the risk is pretty high that we are going to see imported cases,” Weaver said.
Even if an infected person arrives in the U.S., there is little chance that Ebola could get a foothold here, said T.G. Ksiazek, a pathology professor at the Medical Branch. Ebola can only be transmitted through contact with body fluids and is easily controlled with modern medical techniques, said Ksiazek, who will leave for Africa this month to assist in efforts to halt the spread of Ebola.
“We do occasionally have diseases like this imported into the U.S. and we fare well,” he said.
Several other laboratories worldwide and nationally are also developing cures, but the three potential cures being worked on at the National Lab are the most promising, Weaver said. Heinz Feldmann, chief of virology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont., said three of the most renowned Ebola experts are at the Galveston National Laboratory, including Ksiazek. Weaver also is widely known. “Scott is one of the leading virologists in the United States and the world,” said Feldmann, who helped develop a vaccine that is one of the three cures being studied at the Medical Branch.
The bulk of the research on Ebola is being done in the U.S. because the federal government has been willing to fund research into cures of what are known as “emerging diseases,” such as the Ebola and West Nile viruses. Private companies are reluctant to invest the millions — or hundreds of millions — of dollars needed to develop a cure for a disease like Ebola because there is little chance of making a profit.
“There is really no market for this in a typical sense,” Weaver said. “There is no company that thinks they can market this in West Africa for a profit.”
That’s also true of viruses such as West Nile. Making a profit on a virus like West Nile or Ebola is difficult because the outbreaks occur sporadically, so there is no way to predict when a vaccine will be needed.
“If you have a disease like Ebola, it might not show up for several years,” Weaver said. Its sporadic nature also makes it difficult to conduct the testing on humans that is typically done before a drug is licensed by the Federal Drug Administration.
Typically, testing of a flu drug on humans would be done during flu season, but trials are difficult to arrange because Ebola doesn’t appear regularly like the common flu.“It’s almost impossible to set up a clinical test,” Weaver said.
Weaver said the FDA has agreed to license drugs tested only on animals but has never licensed a new product tested only with animals and never on humans.
Quick results sought
The possible cure with the best chance of being developed quickly is a vaccine that has already proved to prevent Ebola in animals if the drug is given before exposure — and, in some instances, has cured the disease after exposure, Weaver said. The National Laboratory will determine how much protection the vaccine gives after exposure and how long it lasts, he said.
With luck, a vaccine might be ready in months, Weaver said. Using it that quickly would require the FDA to allow it to be used unlicensed on an emergency basis and would require the consent of the local governments in Africa, he said.
One of the other possible cures involves genetic engineering to produce antibodies that attack the virus. Another uses a genetic code to interfere with the way the virus reproduces.
“The No. 1 question,” Weaver said, “is how quickly enough could be manufactured and who would pay to have them manufactured?”