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Erica Ollmann Saphire

Fighting Deadly Viruses in the Deep Reaches of the African Jungle

Biomedical researchers in search of knowledge about the workings of the human body and the viruses and diseases they fight typically make their discoveries in labs. But for Scripps Research Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire, the key to understanding deadly viruses is meeting them in their den – the deep reaches of the African jungle.

Erica has several times traded her climate-controlled La Jolla lab for the 95 degree humidity of the West African jungle, where she has tracked the Ebola virus, Lassa hemorrhagic fever, and other hemorrhagic fevers, such as Marburg virus – the subjects of her research for the past eight years.

“It is an opportunity to see where these viruses live,” said Erica. “In the lab, we use biochemistry and biophysics to visualize and understand their component molecules. But these molecules are made this way so they can function not in a lab, but in a rainforest, cave or hut. In order to fully understand their function, you have to put yourself in that rainforest, cave and hut. You can do great science in the lab but the real goal is to translate this science into use in the real world.”

Back in her lab, Erica applies this close-up look at these viruses to her efforts to characterize them on the molecular level.

“Our goal is to get a road map for how to understand and conquer these viruses, which have been largely undefeatable,” said Erica.

The Ebola virus is among the more horrific known to humankind, and there is currently no cure for Ebola hemorrhagic fever, which inflicts a death rate as high as 90 percent of those infected. It spreads when people come into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual. Symptoms first include a sudden fever, headache, and sore throat, then progress to vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and kidney and liver failure. In the final stages, massive hemorrhaging causes heavy bleeding from body openings and internal organs.

Erica made headlines as the woman who broke open the secrets of the Ebola virus. Her breakthrough study on Ebola appeared on the cover of the journal Nature, lifting the veil from the virus’s spike-shaped protein, a critical step in understanding how Ebola works and an essential step for any potential development of a treatment or a vaccine.

The Ebola virus glycoprotein itself, the one thing that is necessary for attaching to and infecting a host, has been a therapeutic target for more than 10 years. But because the structure was unknown, no one knew how to take advantage of it.

The structure uncovered by Erica’s lab gives researchers weaknesses to target in developing any potential therapeutic.

In her five-year quest to uncover the structure of the key protein that resides on the surface of the Ebola virus and allows it to enter human cells, Erica and her colleagues produced more than 50,000 crystals, as part of the team’s use of a technique called x-ray crystallography to determine the atomic structure of molecules.

“We uncovered chinks in the virus’s elaborate armor that we can target specific antibodies against,” said Erica.

Support for Erica’s work on this research was provided partially by a Career Award from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, as well as funding from the Skaggs family to recruit and support postdoctoral fellows. In the past, she has also received private funding for her work on Dengue Virus through a New Initiatives Award in Global Infectious Disease from The Ellison Medical Foundation.

“Private philanthropic support has provided us with the seed money for risky projects,” said Erica. “With these funds, we’ve been able to do the big initial work and make discoveries that then set up the next ten years for federal funding.”

On her most recent trip to Africa, Erica visited the hospital with which her lab is collaborating to investigate the virus that causes Lassa hemorrhagic fever. The goal of this joint initiative is to provide field diagnostics as well as critical templates for therapeutics and vaccines by understanding how Lassa virus infects cells. Her trip was part of a project with Tulane University aimed at developing new ways to treat and prevent Lassa fever.

Lassa fever, a huge public health threat, is an often deadly viral disease that threatens hundreds of thousands of people annually in West Africa. In some areas of Sierra Leone, up to 16 percent of people admitted to hospitals have Lassa fever. Lassa fever is also associated with occasional epidemics, during which the fatality rate can reach 50 percent.

“If you catch Lassa early enough, it’s treatable,” said Erica, “but you need cheap, fast, and simple diagnostics. Local hospitals only have electricity every other day, the local lab technicians might not be well trained, the country was ravaged by civil war, roads can be impassable, few vehicles are available, and the average working person ears far less than $100 a year. If the test costs more than pennies, is complicated or can only be run in a laboratory, it’s not going to be useful.”

Erica and her team have learned how to make recombinant protein both inexpensively and cleanly, and are working to develop it into a diagnostic, somewhat like a pregnancy test dipstick. This early diagnostic allows the fever to be identified and treated in time to save the patient’s life.

“By looking at the structure of the core nucleoprotein of Lassa, we discovered a whole new function of the protein that no one knew it had before,” said Erica. “This is the first step in being able to design drugs to combat the virus.”

The village chief of the village of Yawei was so grateful for the team’s work on trapping rodents that helped rid their village of Lassa, that he gave them a goat, a prized possession that normally costs a year’s salary, as a gift in gratitude.

“The fact that the chief and village were so thankful for our work is a huge motivator for our team,” said Erica. “It gives our work more meaning than just a paper in a journal.”

Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and raised in Austin, Texas, Erica wanted to be a journalist in high school. Journalism held the allure of a career with the potential of seeing new things, maybe experiencing some adventure, and having a decent chance to figure things out. Her parents were teachers and she remembers they often spent their summers traveling to national parks. In college at Rice University in Houston, is where she first took up science, studying biochemistry in the lab and the ecology of East Texas wetlands in the field for species restoration and food production.

Erica continued to pursue science in graduate school, enrolling in what is now the Scripps Research Kellogg School of Science and Technology due to the program’s focus on research and discovery. Working in the Scripps Research laboratory of Professor Ian Wilson, she took on a difficult and ambitious project involving another infamous and deadly virus – human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) – as part of a larger effort to help develop a vaccine against AIDS. After she received her Ph.D. in 2000, Erica chose to stay at Scripps Research where she now heads her own lab.

Erica was recently honored at the White House where she received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government for young professionals at the outset of their independent research careers.

The award winners are selected based on two criteria: innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology, and community service demonstrated through scientific leadership, education, or community outreach.

Erica credits her fellow faculty members at Scripps Research, as well as the postdoctoral fellows and graduate students working in her lab with much of her success. “My faculty colleagues are bright, interesting, and collaborative – they’re all doing important work and are on top of their fields. They’re willing to share ideas, which inspires me,” said Erica. “And our students and postdocs here work extremely hard and share my mission to defeat these viruses – they’re willing to put in the extra work to make our discoveries possible.”

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Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire is a leading researcher in Ebola and other deadly viruses.

Hear Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire speak about her work.