Geisbert in lab

Thomas Geisbert, PhD, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology and Ebola expert is pictured here in his lab at the National Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

A University of Texas Medical Branch professor, along with a large team of other scientists from the medical branch, government agencies from multiple nations and Mapp Biopharmaceutical company, have developed a drug that has been proven to protect against all strains of the Ebola virus in one dose, they said.

The new experimental drug, MBP134, is important because it has been shown in the lab to protect nonhuman primates against deadly Ebola viruses caused by three different strains, including the deadliest Zaire strain that caused the 2013-16 epidemic in West Africa and the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said Tom Geisbert, professor of microbiology and immunology at the medical branch.

“This is huge in terms of an outbreak,” Geisbert said. “These drugs are hugely expensive to make, and from a financial standpoint, if we have one drug that can protect against all three types of the virus, that’s significant.”

Early drugs developed to fight Ebola required as many as 14 injections. ZMapp, the most successful drug to date, requires three injections.

“We were able to protect the nonhuman primates against all the Ebola species plaguing people at a single low rate,” Geisbert said. “The ability to quickly and efficiently provide protection against all Ebola viruses in a single dose would reduce the burden on health care workers in the field during outbreaks, especially in regions that have a less-developed infrastructure.”

Because MBP134 has been shown to protect against all three strains, Geisbert and his team speculate that it will continue to protect people if the Ebola viruses evolve over time.

Geisbert’s team’s findings were published this week in the science journal Cell Host & Microbe.

Geisbert, who worked for the U.S. Army from the mid-1980s to 2007, said the amount of progress made in the past decade has been phenomenal, and research efforts were spurred by the death and diagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas in 2014. Duncan, a Liberian citizen, was the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States. He died less than a month after being diagnosed. Two healthcare workers were infected with Ebola while caring for Duncan.

“We were very well educated in the U.S. over that whole incident,” Geisbert said. “All of a sudden, hospitals and clinics were looking out for patients’ travel history and being alert to that as well as symptoms.”

Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, a company that specializes in medications for prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, focusing on global health and biodefense, is working with the federal government to get MBP134 stockpiled, Geisbert said.

In the instance of an Ebola outbreak in the United States, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority is charged with the responsibility of maintaining the nation’s stockpile of medications.

In nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a 10th outbreak of Ebola was reported in late 2018, financial constraints have made it prohibitive to maintain such stockpiles.

“Historically, it’s been a situation where there’s no money and usually what happens is our government works with organizations like the World Health Organization to make these drugs available,” Geisbert said.

Since 2017, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global group spurred by philanthropists like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in efforts to develop medications that will contain outbreaks before they become global health emergencies, according to reports.

“They’re trying to come up with ways for nonprofit organizations to raise funds to make medicines like this one available where they’re needed,” Geisbert said.

The bulk of funding for developing MBP134 was provided by a five-year grant of $5 million per year, granted to Geisbert through the medical branch, to develop countermeasures against Ebola.

Kathryn Eastburn: 409-683-5257; kathryn.eastburn@galvnews.com.

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