Creative Minds: Preparing for Future Pandemics

Jonathan Abraham

Jonathan Abraham / Credit: ChieYu Lin

Growing up in Queens, NY, Jonathan Abraham developed a love for books and an interest in infectious diseases. One day Abraham got his hands on a copy of Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, a 1990s bestseller warning of future global pandemics, and he sensed his life’s calling. He would help people around the world survive deadly viral outbreaks, particularly from Ebola, Marburg, and other really bad bugs that cause deadly hemorrhagic fevers.

Abraham, now a physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, continues to chase that dream. With support from an NIH Director’s 2016 Early Independence Award, Abraham has set out to help design the next generation of treatments to enable more people to survive future outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic fever. His research strategy: find antibodies in the blood of known survivors that helped them overcome their infections. With further study, he hopes to develop purified forms of the antibodies as potentially life-saving treatments for people whose own immune systems may not make them in time. This therapeutic strategy is called passive immunity.

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Lyme Disease: Gene Signatures May Catch the Infection Sooner

Borrelia burgdoferi

Caption: Borrelia burgdorferi. Immunofluorescent antibodies bind to surface proteins on the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, producing fluorescent yellow, red, and green hues.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Each year, thousands of Americans are bitten by deer ticks.These tiny ticks, common in and around wooded areas in some parts of the United States, can transmit a bacterium into the bloodstream that causes Lyme disease. Those infected experience fever, headache, stiff necks, body aches, and fatigue. A characteristic circular “target” red rash can mark the site of the tick bite, but isn’t always noticed. In fact, many people don’t realize that they’ve been bitten, and weeks can pass before they see a doctor. By then the infection has spread, sometimes causing additional rashes and/or neurological, cardiac, and rheumatological symptoms that mimic those of other conditions. All of this can make getting the right diagnosis frustrating, especially in areas where Lyme disease is rare.

Even when Lyme disease is suspected early on, the bacterium is unusually slow growing and present at low levels, so it can take a while before blood tests detect antibodies to confirm the condition. By then, knocking out the infection with antibiotics can be more challenging. But research progress continues to be made toward improving the diagnosis of Lyme disease.

An NIH-supported team recently uncovered a unique gene expression pattern in white blood cells from people infected with the Lyme disease-causing bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi [1]. This distinctive early gene signature, which persists after antibiotic treatment, is unique from other viral and bacterial illnesses studies by the team. With further work and validation, the test could one day possibly provide a valuable new tool to help doctors diagnose Lyme disease earlier and help more people get the timely treatment that they need.

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Happy New Year … and a Look Back at a Memorable 2015

Four NIH-supported science breakthroughs for 2015A new year has arrived, and it’s going to be an amazing one for biomedical research. But before diving into our first “new science” post of 2016, let’s take a quick look back at 2015 and some of its remarkable accomplishments. A great place to reflect on “the year that was” is the journal Science’s annual Top 10 list of advances in all of scientific research worldwide. Four of 2015’s Top 10 featured developments directly benefited from NIH support—including Science’s “Breakthrough of the Year,” the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique. Here’s a little more on the NIH-assisted breakthroughs:

CRISPR Makes the Cut: I’ve highlighted CRISPR/Cas9 in several posts. This gene-editing system consists of a short segment of RNA that is attached to an enzyme. The RNA is preprogrammed to find a distinct short sequence of DNA and deliver the enzyme, which acts like a scalpel to slice the sequence out of the genome. It’s fast and pretty precise. Although CRISPR/Cas9 isn’t brand-new—it’s been under development as a gene-editing tool for a few years—Science considered 2015 to be “the year that it broke away from the pack.”

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From Ebola Researchers, An Anthem of Hope

One Truth Video screenshot

After watching this music video, you might wonder what on earth it has to do with biomedical science, let alone Ebola research. The answer is everything.

This powerful song, entitled “One Truth,” is dedicated to all of the brave researchers, healthcare workers, and others who have put their lives on the line to save people during the recent outbreak of Ebola virus disease. What’s more, it was written and performed by seven amazing scientists—one from the United States and six from West Africa.

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NIH Ebola Update: Working Toward Treatments and Vaccines

Ebola virus and development of therapeutics

Credit: National Institutes of Health

Updated Oct. 22, 2014: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) today announced the start of human clinical trials of a second Ebola vaccine candidate at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. In this early phase trial, researchers from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) are evaluating the vaccine, called VSV-ZEBOV, for its safety and ability to generate an immune response in healthy adults who receive two intramuscular doses, called a prime-boost strategy.

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research is simultaneously testing the vaccine candidate as a single dose at its Clinical Trials Center in Silver Spring, MD. VSV-ZEBOV, which was developed by researchers at the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory, has been licensed to NewLink Genetics Corp. through its wholly owned subsidiary BioProtection Systems, both based in Ames, Iowa.

Early human testing of another Ebola vaccine candidate, co-developed by NIAID and GlaxoSmithKline, began in early September at the NIH Clinical Center. Initial data on that vaccine’s safety and ability to generate an immune response are expected by the end of 2014.

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We are all alarmed by the scope and scale of the human tragedy occurring in West African nations affected by the Ebola virus disease epidemic. While the cornerstones of the Ebola response remain prompt diagnosis and isolation of patients, tracing of contacts, and proper protective equipment for healthcare workers, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), led by its National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is spearheading efforts to develop treatments and a vaccine for Ebola as quickly as possible.

For example, NIAID has supported and collaborated with Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Inc., San Diego, in its development of the product known as ZMapp, which has been administered experimentally to several Ebola-infected patients. While it is not possible at this time to determine whether ZMapp benefited these patients, NIAID is supporting a broader effort to advance development and clinical testing of ZMapp to determine if it is safe and effective. In addition, the U.S. Biodefense Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) has announced plans to optimize and accelerate the manufacturing of ZMapp, which is in limited supply, to enable clinical safety testing to proceed as soon as possible.

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