Researchers at Georgia State University are working to develop a vaccine for the Ebola virus using a unique, alternative technique that differs from the traditional way that vaccines are produced. Microbiologists Dr. George Pierce and Dr. Sid Crow are available to discuss their vaccine project.
Their method targets a small amino acid sequence in a similar virus, eliminating the need for high risk facilities, and fuses it to a bacterial protein known to activate human immune system responses. The technique developed by Pierce and Crow could also result in faster production of the vaccine in larger volumes, the researchers say.
Ebola hemorrhagic fever, one of numerous viral hemorrhagic fevers, is a severe and often fatal disease in humans and nonhuman primates. In March 2014, an outbreak of Ebola virus began in West Africa, originating in Guinea and spreading to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Health Organization, in partnership with the Ministries of Health in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria have announced a total of 1,711 suspect and confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease and 932 deaths, as of Aug. 4. Of the 1,711 clinical cases, 1,070 cases have been laboratory confirmed for Ebola virus infection.
On Aug. 7, the CDC raised the level of its response to the West African Ebola outbreak to its highest alert status, Level 1, increasing the staff and resources to address the situation.
Traditionally, many scientists have focused their work to combat Ebola on targeting and blocking RNA polymerase. Pierce and Crow are using an alternative method involving fusion proteins.
They're creating a vaccine with a 15 sequence amino acid from a similar virus called Marburg virus that has been identified by other researchers as the portion that causes disease. The short sequence cannot cause disease and doesn't require high risk facilities. A short, similar sequence has not yet been identified for Ebola, so the researchers chose to study Marburg and test its effectiveness on Ebola, as well as Marburg.
In traditional vaccines, a person receives a protein from a disease, which activates their immune system. If the person is exposed to the disease again, their body will be able to recognize it and counter the infection.
"We took an entirely different approach," Pierce said. "The standard approach to making vaccines has probably not changed in almost 400 years."
In Marburg virus, the protein is very weak, so the researchers developed the fusion protein technique to get a stronger response. To produce the Ebola vaccine, they are attaching the short Marburg amino acid sequence to the bacterial protein flagellin, the major protein that makes up flagella, the appendages that bacteria use for movement. When the human body, particularly the gut, senses that flagellin is present, it prepares to mount an immune response if it sees other bacteria, making it effective for vaccines.
In addition, Georgia State University researcher Dr. Julia Hilliard is working on diagnostics and therapeutics for Ebola virus. She is also available for interviews about her work.