As the number of lives taken by the Ebola virus in West Africa quickly approaches 1,000, and the U.S. prepares as rapidly as it can, it is clear that little is known in the medical community about the virus. In fact, some experts point out that the number of medical professionals who can properly diagnose and recommend the next steps for treatment is alarmingly small.
Some scientists, however, like Alan Schmaljohn, Ph.D
., Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM), have spent decades studying the Ebola virus and similar viruses identifying key characteristics that have aided in the development of vaccines, antivirals and treatment methods.
As a leader of research and Chief in the Viral pathogenesis and Immunology Branch with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), Dr. Schmaljohn was able to help identify three of the key antibodies that are used currently in combination with each other to treat patients infected with Ebola.
Dr. Schmaljohn is now one of the scientific leaders in the UM SOM partnership with Department of Defense contract recipient Paragon Bioservices in the manufacture of an Ebola virus vaccine for initial safety testing in humans.
“Several vaccine candidates for Ebolavirus are proceeding through initial manufacture toward safety testing in human volunteers,” Dr. Schmaljohn said. “Different vaccine candidates are based upon different ‘platforms’ in which selected viral proteins may be made ‘in the test tube’ and purified for injection, or may be added genetically as passengers of a different variety of virus that is weakened. Only human trials will provide the final answers as to which vaccines are best on the basis of many criteria, foremost being safety and efficacy,” he said.
Dr. Schmaljohn was originally one of the leaders in determining what kinds of immune responses are required for protection against viruses like Ebola and he was part of the team that first identified antibodies capable of protecting certain animals from Ebola virus. “Subsequently,” he said, “three of these antibodies have been developed as a candidate mixture for human therapy against Ebolavirus, which seems to be true with an American who was infected with Ebolavirus during the current outbreak.” However, he cautions that many scientific questions remain unanswered.
E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., Vice President of Medical Affairs at the University of Maryland and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean of the UM SOM, said, “We are grateful to have scientists at the UM SOM like Dr. Schmaljohn who have studied viruses like Ebola for decades. We can now build on that knowledge and understanding to focus on bridging the science to the development of new vaccines. The University of Maryland School of Medicine is well-positioned to play an integral role in addressing this serious public health issue.”
The UM SOM has been an international leader in both vaccine development and study of infectious disease for many years with longstanding support from NIH and other federal agencies.
Scientists in the School’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, under the leadership of James B. Kaper, Ph.D, have opened new approaches to the basic and applied aspects of infectious diseases and host defenses. They are applying these approaches to basic aspects of receptor signaling, regulation of gene expression in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells and interactions between these cells, genetic manipulation of cellular functions, microbial genomics and evolution, and development of new vaccination strategies. The techniques of functional genomics, gene delivery, stem cells and transgenic/gene disruption animal models are being developed to address specific questions.
The pioneering work of the UM SOM’s Center for Vaccine Development, under Myron Levine, M.D., D.T.P.H., founded the discipline now known as “vaccinology,” which incorporates measurement of the burden of a disease to direct vaccine research; construction of vaccine candidates; clinical trials to demonstrate the safety of a vaccine and its ability to stimulate immune responses and to protect against disease; and documentation of the public health impact that follows introduction of the vaccine into widespread use. The earliest NIH-supported formal training programs in the field of vaccinology were established by Dr. Levine at the SOM. It was, and still is, funded with a T32 Grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Levine has also oriented the discipline at Maryland to address the development and introduction of vaccines to prevent diseases afflicting impoverished populations in the developing world.
The UM SOM is also home to the Institute of Human Virology (IHV) under the leadership of Robert C. Gallo, M.D. The IHV is the first center in the U.S. to combine the disciplines of basic science, epidemiology and clinical research in a concerted effort to speed the discovery of diagnostics and therapeutics for a wide variety of chronic and deadly viral and immune disorders, most notably HIV. Dr. Gallo, who is widely known for his pioneering research in the field of human retroviruses with his discoveries of, Il-2, HTLV-1 and HTLV-2, his co-discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS, and his development of the HIV blood test, is The Homer & Martha Gudelsky Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Director of the Institute of Human Virology in the School of Medicine, and Co-Founder and Scientific Director of the Global Virus Network (GVN).