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How The Ebola Serum Traveled From San Diego To West Africa

Evening Edition

Aired 8/6/14 on KPBS Midday Edition.

How The Ebola Serum Traveled From San Diego To West Africa

GUEST:

Erica Ollmann Saphire, molecular biologist, Scripps Research Institute; director, Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Immunotherapeutic Consortium.

AP Photo/Courtesy Jeremy Writebol

This Oct. 7, 2013, photo provided by Jeremy Writebol, shows his mother, Nancy Writebol, with children in Liberia. Writebol is one of two Americans working for a missionary group in Liberia that have been diagnosed with Ebola. AP Photo/Courtesy Jeremy Writebol

AP Photo/JPS Health Network

Dr. Kent Brantly, an American aid worker infected with Ebola while working in Africa, is shown in this 2013 photo provided by JPS Health Network.

When two American aid workers treating Ebola patients in Liberia became infected with the deadly disease, they received a dose of an experimental serum. That serum was developed based on research conducted in La Jolla and manufactured by a local biopharmaceutical firm.

One of the lead researchers who spent 10 years developing the treatment given to Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol is Erica Ollmann Saphire, a molecular biologist at Scripps Research Institute. She is also the director of the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium, a network of research institutes that includes Scripps.

Like many of us, Saphire is closely following the status of Brantly and Writebol, who were recently airlifted from Liberia to Atlanta.

"I’m checking the news like every few hours," she said.

Saphire helped identify antibodies that were used in the mixture.

"I look at the structures or the images of the molecules involved, and so we’ve been using this imaging to understand how Ebola virus infects cells and how antibodies like those in the serum defeat it,” she said.

The serum is an “antibody cocktail" identified by researchers with the consortium.

However, human trial for the serum isn't set until next year. Yet, the use of such experimental treatments is permitted during a time of emergency.

"From the people that manufacture to the CDC and the FDA and, of course, the foreign ministries of health because this had to pass through Liberia, a lot of people had to agree with this and a lot of people had to be on the same page," Saphire said. "And it really does open doors to more use of antibody treatments not just for Ebola virus but maybe other diseases as well."

Recently, one of those doors closed: The consortium lost out on a $13 million grant from the National Institute of Health. The organization had received the grant for the past few years.

It would’ve funded research to create a similar serum for the lassa virus, which is even more common than Ebola in West Africa.

Lassa causes as many as 300,000 infections and 5,000 deaths annually in West Africa, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far this year, Ebola has killed 932 people, the World Health Organization reported.

Part of the National Institute of Health funds would have gone toward continuing operations at a laboratory in Sierra Leone.

Saphire said she’s "scrambling" to secure other funding.

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