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Scripps Research Institute Team Receives $6.6 Million to Investigate Deadly Lassa Virus

LA JOLLA, CA – October 14, 2014 – Scientists from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have been awarded $6.6 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to lead an investigation of Lassa fever virus, the most prevalent virus-induced hemorrhagic fever disease in Africa. The study aims to understand how Lassa fever virus causes disease and why some patients die, while others survive the inflection.

“The ultimate goal is for researchers to understand the basic mechanism of how Lassa fever virus causes disease and develop new treatments to be used by clinicians to fight this malady,” said TSRI Professor Michael Oldstone, principal investigator of the new grant.

Lassa fever is spread by rodents and is common in West Africa, where it kills an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people every year—approximately 10 to 15 percent of those infected. The virus can pass from human to human, causing devastating outbreaks of a hemorrhagic disease similar to Ebola virus.

This five-year study focuses on how the immune system fights off Lassa fever virus and how the virus can confound the immune system. To date, little is known about how the body’s innate immune response (interferons, cytokine proteins, inflammatory cells) and adaptive immune response (T and B cells, antibodies) react to the hemorrhagic virus infections.

One TSRI investigator, Brian Sullivan, will work both in La Jolla and in Sierra Leone on the project. A hospital, specialized hemorrhagic fever ward and containment laboratory have been established in Sierra Leone with doctors and nurses there to treat patients and collect blood and tissue. Samples are handled at the containment laboratory. Other samples will go to team members in the United States, including groups led by Oldstone, Sullivan and Juan Carlos de la Torre at TSRI and by Pardis Sabeti at Harvard University and Robert Garry at Tulane University.

“Not a lot of research has been done on neglected tropical fevers like Lassa, which cause profound public health and economic problems,” said Sullivan. “I think we’ll get a lot of answers to important questions that haven’t been asked before.”

Studies will include analysis of cells and chemicals of the innate and adaptive immune response, mapping the genetics of patients who survive and those who do not. In addition, the team will follow up on previous studies suggesting that there is an unusually high mutation rate in individuals living in Lassa fever-endemic areas and that these mutations may play an important role in the rate of survival of patients.

The project is funded by NIH contract number HHSN272201400048C and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) grant number N01-AI-2013167.

About The Scripps Research Institute

The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) is one of the world's largest independent, not-for-profit organizations focusing on research in the biomedical sciences. TSRI is internationally recognized for its contributions to science and health, including its role in laying the foundation for new treatments for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, and other diseases. An institution that evolved from the Scripps Metabolic Clinic founded by philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps in 1924, the institute now employs more than 2,500 people on its campuses in La Jolla, CA, and Jupiter, FL, where its renowned scientists—including two Nobel laureates and 20 members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering or Medicine—work toward their next discoveries. The institute's graduate program, which awards PhD degrees in biology and chemistry, ranks among the top ten of its kind in the nation. In October 2016, TSRI announced a strategic affiliation with the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), representing a renewed commitment to the discovery and development of new medicines to address unmet medical needs. For more information, see www.scripps.edu.

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