Mapp Bio Steps onto Global Stage as Ebola “Hot Zone” Gets Hotter

8/29/14Follow @bvbigelow

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humans. Three early stage  trials are slated to start soon—two in the U.S., one in the U.K., Mali and the Gambia—and data are expected by the end of the year.

Whaley was one of three experts invited to talk about the lethal Ebola virus and how efforts to contain the epidemic are faltering in West Africa. Nearly 200 people attended the discussion, which often strayed into funding appeals as the experts described how reductions in federal support for biomedical research and last year’s budget sequestration have hamstrung basic biomedical R&D.

“There has been no comparable response to the Ebola outbreak that was seen with the [2011] tsunami in Japan and the [2010] earthquake in Haiti,” said Erica Ollmann Saphire, who studies the molecular basis of viral pathogenesis at TSRI.

U.S. health agencies that once awarded funding to the top 25 percent of research grant applications a few years ago are now handing out grants only to the top 7 or 8 percent, Saphire said.

Erica Ollmann Saphire, structural cell biologist, virology, pathology

Erica Ollmann Saphire

An international research consortium that Saphire leads also lost funding needed to operate a clinic in Sierra Leone that examined nearly all of the country’s patients in the first month of the Ebola outbreak. Automated cuts mandaded by the budget sequestration for the fiscal year that began last October deleted $100,000 needed to run the clinic and pay about 30 healthcare workers, said Saphire, who appealed for donations to keep the clinic going.

Meanwhile, there is no cure for Ebola, Saphire said. The virus replicates so rapidly that a patient’s immune system is literally in a race against death. In addition to advancing experimental vaccines and drug candidates, such as the cocktail of monoclonal antibodies developed by Mapp Bio, Saphire said new methods for rapidly diagnosing Ebola infections are also badly needed.

With current tools such as a cell-culture assay or a PCR-based genetic test, it can take days to determine if a patient is battling Ebola. Saphire said her lab has been trying to develop a “dip stick diagnostic”—like a pregnancy test—that uses antibodies to immediately signal the presence of the virus.

Saphire said her lab, like Mapp Bio, is completely reliant on federal funding to continue its scientific research and development. Although Whaley said Mapp Bio is “working aggressively to pull materials together,” it was clear the little company is depending on the government to accelerate ZMapp production and move toward clinical trials.

When asked how long that might take, Whaley was presumably referring to the government when he said, “They are doing everything they can, both technically and from a financial point of view.”

When asked how ordinary folks can help, Mark O’Donnell of Project Concern International (PCI), a San Diego non-governmental organization that provides humanitarian and … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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