Tulane University scientists will get $12 million for animal studies to test drug combinations to treat Lassa fever and to develop a vaccine for the deadly virus, which can attack internal organs and cause bleeding from the mouth, nose and other places.
Tulane's medical school says a team led by Robert Garry is getting grants from the National Institutes of Health for two five-year studies.
One, getting $5.7 million, will evaluate a drug mixture to treat the virus, which is common in parts of West Africa. The other will provide $6.3 million to develop a vaccine based on a recently discovered possible target for antibodies on the surface of the virus, a news release Tuesday said.
"In West Africa, we need a drug to treat acutely infected patients as well as a preventative measure to stop it," said Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine. "Vaccine initiatives in rural Africa are difficult so you are never going to be able to vaccinate everyone. You need to be able to treat people when they get sick."
Some 100,000 to 300,000 people a year get sick from the virus, most often transmitted in food contaminated with rat feces or urine. About 5,000 of them die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.
Garry said the vaccine will include both Lassa and Ebola fever glycoproteins — surface structures that can be targeted to keep a virus from infecting host cells.
"Ebola is likely to come back, and Lassa isn't going away so you have to protect against both," Garry said. "We think we can do it with one shot."
The other project will test three antibodies that have done well in early animal studies, to see which mixtures work best. Tulane is working on this project with scientists at Zalgen Labs in Germantown, Maryland; The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California; the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in La Jolla.