Professor John Clements, PhD, is retiring from Tulane School of Medicine in June, after chairing the Department of Microbiology and Immunology since 1999. Over the past 35 years on the Tulane faculty, he has helped to secure $40 million in grants, including one that paid for five new “ballroom labs” he designed in the J. Bennett Johnston building. After Hurricane Katrina, Clements played an instrumental role leading a team into New Orleans that rescued decades worth of research from Tulane laboratories.
Q. What should we know about the vaccines that you worked on?
What we really work on are things called adjuvants, things you add to vaccines to make them work better. Just think Tony Chachere’s—it makes everything you put it on a little bit better. Well, that’s what adjuvants do, they amplify the body’s immune response to a vaccine’s antigens.
Q. The adjuvants you work on can improve access to vaccines by helping to reduce the amount of antigens needed in vaccines or allowing them to be delivered differently?
Yes. Our primary focus is vaccines against diarrheal diseases for children in developing countries. These diseases do not affect children in developed countries, so they are not attractive targets for large pharmaceutical companies. Along with numerous other organizations, we explore novel ways to develop low-cost, safe, effective vaccines for these children.
Q: I’m told you enjoy mentoring.
Junior investigators are always asking questions that I would not have thought to ask. The answers allowed us to move forward in directions that I would not have moved on my own. Betzi Norton and Jacob Bitoun in our department will continue working on the same things that I’m working on now, in their own way. It’s a natural progression. And because of them, my science won’t end when I retire. That’s a great consolation to me.
This is an excerpt of an article originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Tulane Med. Continue on to full article.
Tulane University virologists are part of a team of researchers working on a new $15 million federally funded project to help eradicate Ebola and Lassa fever by studying in detail how survivors were able to fight off the deadly viruses.
The Scripps Research Institute will lead the effort via the newly created Center for Viral Systems Biology (CViSB), which includes researchers from Tulane University School of Medicine, Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, the University of California, Los Angeles, the Ragon Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The new project builds on more than a decade of highly collaborative work in Sierra Leone, West Africa, where scientists and local partners have built research facilities and worked with patients.
“Coupling the powerful tools of systems biology research with the resources built up over the past fifteen years in West Africa will allow important advances in our understanding of Ebola and Lassa fever, two of the deadliest diseases known,” said Robert Garry, PhD, co-director of the new center and professor of microbiology at Tulane.
While Ebola virus outbreaks are rare, the 2013–2016 epidemic in West Africa infected more than 15,000 people, killing more than 10,000. Lassa virus causes recurring outbreaks in West Africa, killing thousands of people a year.
“These are very severe diseases, but some people survive. So the simple question is ‘Why?’ How are some people able to fight off the disease, while others are not?” said CViSB co-director Kristian Andersen, PhD, director of Infectious Disease Genomics at the Scripps Translational Science Institute.
Researchers will use genomic analysis and other advanced tools, including physiological measurements, to study individual disease survivors. They will also develop predictive statistical models for identifying critical disease correlates and analyze large-scale data sets to pinpoint causal host-pathogen interactions. By shedding light on the molecular networks that play critical roles in patient outcomes, the research will allow scientists to identify new targets for medicines and vaccines and inform personalized treatment strategies.
“This is different from a lot of research where we are looking at the outbreaks as a whole,” Andersen said. “In this research, instead we’re zooming in on the individual patient to learn how we can best treat and prevent these diseases in the future."
WATCH: Tulane's proposal for the MacArthur Foundation's 100&Change grant was named a "Best Bet" by one of the nation's leading philanthropic research centers.
A Tulane University proposal to establish a comprehensive system of infectious disease response, from early detection to the development of new treatments, has been named a “Best Bet” by one of the nation’s leading philanthropic research centers.
The Center for High Impact Philanthropy (CHIP), which is widely recognized as a trusted source of knowledge and education to help donors do more good, sees great potential in a Tulane plan to combat infectious diseases, like Ebola and Zika, before they burst onto the world stage in the form of epidemics. The recognition by the University of Pennsylvania-based CHIP shines a light on deserving proposals that the MacArthur Foundation, a leading supporter of nonprofits, cannot fund but hopes others will.
Tulane was one of 1,904 institutions and groups that submitted proposals for the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change grant, which awards $100 million to a single project that can make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem. CHIP analyzed MacArthur’s top applications and identified 11 “Best Bets” that didn’t get the big prize but have the greatest potential for impact.
Tulane’s proposal centered on developing processes to quickly respond to emerging disease threats by creating a seamless “detection to production” system.
“Our solution is to establish an efficient and adaptable system able to identify potential infectious disease threats and quickly develop novel diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, which are critical to stopping the spread of diseases in a timely fashion,” John Clements, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane School of Medicine, wrote in the grant proposal.
CHIP noted that Tulane’s proposal was a particularly bold idea worth funding given the combined resources of its schools of Medicine, Public Health and Tropical Medicine and Science and Engineering, as well as its National Primate Research Center, Biodiversity Research Center and affiliated clinical trials units. CHIP’s recommendation also highlighted Tulane’s long history of infectious disease research and prevention.
“[Tulane’s] team of scientists from across the university’s multiple schools, and its past involvement in infectious disease prevention represent unique competencies that the team brings,” says CHIP’s Bold Ideas guide. “In addition, Tulane suggests that the processes it develops will be shared and could eventually be replicated at other institutions.”
“If Tulane is successful in streamlining the process of diagnosing and developing treatment and vaccines for infectious disease and minimizing the response time to an outbreak, loss of life could be dramatically reduced.”
If you would like more information about supporting this project, contact Melissa Ereckson at email@example.com.
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.
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), 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.