UTMB forms collaboration to advance bioterror treatments

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is teaming up with the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and two pharmaceutical companies to advance treatments for Ebola and Marburg viruses, the university said on Wednesday.

As part of a $26 million grant supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, UTMB, Vanderbilt, Profectus Biosciences and Tekmira Pharmaceuticals will develop and test new vaccines and broad spectrum treatments to counteract lethal hemorrhagic fever viruses.

Ebola and Marburg are considered Tier 1 pathogens by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which means they are considered agents with the highest risk of being deliberately misused by terrorists. There are no vaccines or treatments approved for human use against filoviruses, and filovirus infection causes mortality rates ranging from 50 to 90 percent.

The award will go to Thomas Geisbert, a professor in UTMB's Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

"We are very excited about this new grant as it combines three of the most promising post-exposure treatments that have shown the ability to completely protect animals against these deadly viruses," Geisbert said. "We are very appreciative of the support we have received from NIAID/(National Institutes of Health) and look forward to working with them and with our corporate partners to further develop these most promising interventions for human use."

The Vanderbilt University Medical Center will conduct three independent research projects supported by UTMB's Galveston National Laboratory. UTMB has the only operational biosafety level four laboratory on a university campus in the U.S.

James Crowe Jr., the director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, said his group will study how antibodies recognize and kill filoviruses to find new ways to develop, design and test vaccines. The team will use human monoclonal antibodies derived from the blood cells of naturally infected human survivors.

John Eldridge, the chief science officer of Profectus' vaccine division, said his company looked forward to combining its vaccines with Tekmira's therapeutics and Vanderbilt's antibodies.

"Ebola and Marburg are both highly pathogenic, rapidly progressing infections with narrow windows for intervention," Eldridge said. "We are confident a combined approach will be more successful for treating these infections."

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