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TSRI Panel Shares Critical Ebola Work with the Public

By Madeline McCurry-Schmidt and Mika Ono

The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) and the San Diego community came together August 27 for a public panel on stopping the deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. With new cases appearing every day, San Diego researchers and aid groups have stepped up to contain the disease and prevent future outbreaks.

More than 100 people—including reporters from media outlets such as U-T San Diego, KPBS, Science, Xconomy and Fox, NBC, CBS and KUSI local TV stations—attended the event. Moderated by TSRI Assistant Professor Ryan Shenvi and organized by TSRI’s Office of Philanthropy, the panel featured TSRI Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire; Mark O’Donnell, chief operating officer of Project Concern International (PCI); and Kevin Whaley, CEO of Mapp Biopharmaceutical.

Saphire explained why the Ebola virus so deadly and how her lab is accelerating the effort to find treatments.

“Ebola is one of the worst viruses we know,” she said. “It is up to 90 percent lethal. It is contracted by contact with the fluids of an infected person, by touching the corpse of someone who died by Ebola virus or by contact with infected animals in the wild. One of the reasons it is so lethal is because it replicates rapidly. At time of death, a patient can have a billion copies of the virus in a square centimeter of blood.”

In her lab, Saphire and her team study the structure of the antibodies to Ebola virus and figure out how these immune molecules deactivate the pathogen. For example, her lab and the lab of TSRI Assistant Professor Andrew Ward have studied the three antibodies that make up Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s experimental drug, ZMapp, which was recently given to two American missionary workers who survived the disease.

Whaley, who noted Mapp Biopharmaceutical was founded to address unmet needs in public health and is working aggressively to ramp up production of ZMapp, said that he was grateful to TSRI for providing much critical background information to help develop the drug candidate.

Also addressing the audience was C. Daniel Murin, a graduate student in the Saphire and Ward labs who worked on the TSRI team who discovered how the antibodies in ZMapp work. He used a model to demonstrate the sites of vulnerability on the surface of the virus—the cracks in the virus’s armor.

Reporting on conditions on the ground in Liberia, O’Donnell said the epidemic had reached the level of a “dire crisis.” He noted, however, he was proud of his team—PCI has been operating to promote health and economic development in the region for about four years—as well as the local community’s concern. “The San Diego community is responding,” he said.

To contain current and future outbreaks, the panelists emphasized the need for public education and provision of basic medical supplies, as well as funding for scientific studies on Ebola virus and other disease-causing agents.

TSRI is raising funds for both Ebola research and relief on the ground (including wages of doctors, nurses and scientists at the center of the outbreak). All donations are appreciated.

Media coverage of the event included:

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“[Ebola virus] is so lethal is because it replicates rapidly,” says Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire. “At time of death, a patient can have a billion copies of the virus in a square centimeter of blood.” (Photo by Cindy Brauer.)


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More than 100 people attended the event. (Photo by Cindy Brauer.)