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Researchers hunt for Lassa Fever cure

Story by Katy Reckdahl
October 13, 2017

James Robinson and Robert Garry have tracked the Lassa virus for more than a decade.

Twelve years ago, Robert Garry first suggested that his team at Tulane University School of Medicine could unlock the secrets of the mysterious Lassa virus.

Some researchers were skeptical. “They thought it was too difficult,” Garry said.

For starters, the trip from the closest airport to Tulane’s partners at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone took 13 hours, driving over treacherously bumpy dirt roads. Tulane would have to draw blood samples from Lassa survivors at a lab in southern Nigeria and the hospital in Kenema, freeze the samples, then keep them frozen for another long bumpy ride and a trans-Atlantic flight to New Orleans.

Once those practical concerns were overcome, Tulane researchers were faced with a virus that science knew very little about in 2005.

“This virus was an enigma,” said Garry’s longtime colleague, Dr. James Robinson, a professor of pediatrics. “We knew it occurred and that people either died or got better.”

“Before we started, no one knew what the proteins of Lassa virus looked like,” said Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology. “We knew little about how the immune system responded to the virus. And we didn’t know if our tests would work.”

A few years ago, the Tulane team grieved and suffered setbacks after Kenema’s hospital became ground zero for an explosive outbreak of Ebola virus, a highly contagious hemorrhagic fever whose initial symptoms look similar to Lassa in patients. Despite protective gear, 11 of the hospital’s staff were infected; several died, including the chief nurse and the doctor in charge of the Lassa fever program.

This article appeared first in the September 2017 issue of Tulane magazine. Continue to full article.

New drug protects against advanced Lassa fever

September 05, 2017

Story by Keith Brannon

Tulane University School of Medicine virologists Dr. James Robinson (left) and Robert Garry are part of the research team that developed human monoclonal antibodies for a new Lassa fever therapy.

An experimental therapy using cloned antibodies from Lassa fever survivors was 100 percent effective in stopping the progression of the deadly disease in nonhuman primates up to eight days after infection, according to a new study in Nature Medicine. 

The research, conducted by a collaborative team led by University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, tested Arevirumab-3, a cocktail of human monoclonal antibodies developed by Tulane University and Zalgen Labs LLC. 

Lassa fever is a severe and often fatal hemorrhagic illness caused by Lassa virus. It infects more than 300,000 annually. Women and children are in the highest risk groups for the disease, which is often hard to detect in early stages because initial symptoms are similar to the flu and other common illnesses. 

“The fact that Arevirumab-3 was 100 percent effective in rescuing primates more than a week after infection with Lassa virus suggests that this therapy may benefit patients with Lassa fever in West Africa, who often present to the clinic at a late stage of disease,” said virologist Robert Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine. “We are accelerating further development of Arevirumab-3 so that this promising treatment can be deployed into clinics where it is needed most.”

This summer, the National Institutes of Health awarded Tulane $5.7 million to further test and refine the antibody-based treatment to get it ready for clinical trials. Tulane was also awarded $6.32 million to develop a Lassa vaccine.

The vaccine will test antibodies that target a recently identified viral surface structure, called the surface glycoprotein, which can block it from infecting a host cell.  

Tulane researchers have been studying Lassa in West Africa with a team of collaborators for more than 14 years. They have developed a rapid test to diagnose the disease in the field and spent years collecting blood samples from survivors to identify critical antibodies against the virus. 

Tulane University School of Medicine is now a Center of Excellence in the Global Virus Network (GVN)

Tulane University School of Medicine  is now a Center of Excellence in the Global Virus Network (GVN), a organization of leading medical virologists from 25 countries decidated to fighting pandemic viral threats through collaborative research, training and advocacy.

Dr. Robert Garry

Dr. Robert Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology, will lead Tulane's GVN Center of Excellence, which will focus on building research capacity to respond to emerging viral threats in West Africa, an area that recently experienced the deadliest outbreak of Ebola.

Tulane also leads the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium (VHFC), a public-private partnership of scientists who are developing countermeasures, including diagnostics, immunotherapeutics and vaccines, against Lassa virus, Ebola and Marburg viruses, flaviviruses (including Zika virus) and several other high consequence pathogens.

"Given their breadth and deep expertise in viruses, particularly hemorrhagic viruses, Tulane will be an excellent resource for the GVN," said Robert Gallo, GVN co-founder and scientific director. "Bob Garry's ability to establish successful public-private partnerships, such as the VHFC, to help bring lab research to the clinic, particularly in the field of diagnostics, will be a tremendous boost to the GVN."

Garry helped pioneer a rapid test for Ebola and is now working on diagnostics for Zika virus.

"We look forward to joining the GVN so that we can better foster infrastructure development, research, training and education on detection, prevention, amelioration, and treatment of viral hemorrhagic fever viruses targeting both the scientific and general communities," Garry said. "We have a significant presence in West Africa and are pleased to extend our global reach through the GVN."

The GVN is a global authority and resource for the identification, investigation, interpretation, control and suppression of viral diseases posing threats to mankind. It addresses a global need for coordinated virology training, developing scholarly exchange programs for recruiting and training young scientists in medical virology. It also serves as a resource to governments and international organizations seeking advice about viral disease threats, prevention or response strategies.