Tulane University School of Medicine virologists Robert Garry, left and Dr. James Robinson are part of a team of collaborators who've been researching Lassa fever in West Africa for more than 14 years.

Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano, Tulane University

Tulane University has been awarded more than $12 million by the National Institutes of Health to test a treatment and develop a vaccine for Lassa fever, a deadly viral hemorrhagic fever common in West Africa that infects more than 300,000 people a year.

The funding stems in part from the work of Tulane virologists Robert Garry and James Robinson, who were part of a team of scientists led by the Scripps Research Institute that mapped out the molecular structure of surface protein on the Lassa virus, a protein that allows it to infect human cells.

Those findings, which took more than a decade of research, were published in a cover story in the June 2 issue of the journal Science.

The funding, which comes from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, consists of two five-year grants: one for $5.72 million to evaluate an antibody drug cocktail to treat those with Lassa fever and another for $6.32 million to design a vaccine to target the glycoprotein mapped out for the first time as part of the Scripps team's work.

“These two projects complement each other. In West Africa, we need a drug to treat acutely infected patients as well as a preventative measure to stop it,” said Garry, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane University School of Medicine.

In Africa, "you are never going to be able to vaccinate everyone. You need to be able to treat people when they get sick," he added.

Lassa fever is a severe and often fatal hemorrhagic illness carried by rodents that don’t get sick from the disease but pass the virus along to people through their urine or feces or if they are eaten.

Garry said the virus is also transmitted between infected people in homes or hospitals. Pregnant women who get infected are particularly in danger.

Garry, who has been part of a group of researchers studying Lassa virus in Sierra Leone for 14 years, said Lassa is a "lesser-known cousin" of Ebola and the two diseases share many symptoms, including fever and bleeding. But while Lassa tends not to get as much attention as Ebola, it is more common and almost as deadly.

The West African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were ravaged by a three-year Ebola outbreak that began in 2014 and killed more than 11,000 people.

Garry said that while Ebola flares up sporadically, Lassa occurs year-round and infects tens of thousands each year.

"If you do get sick with the disease, there is a very high fatality rate" he said. "It's about the same as Ebola."

In their work with Scripps, Tulane scientists collected blood samples from Lassa survivors in Sierra Leone and sent them back to New Orleans, where Robinson’s lab identified and cloned more than 100 different antibodies.

“The antibodies were a very important tool for trying to understand the structure of the glycoprotein,” Robinson said in a news release. “It was key to understanding where the antibodies were binding and the mechanisms for neutralization of the virus.”

On the treatment side, Garry’s team will test the three most potent Lassa antibodies to see which formulation will work best in a drug therapy.

For the vaccine, the work will incorporate similar glycoproteins against Ebola that are already being tested in clinical trials.

“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.”

Garry’s work on Lassa fever in Sierra Leone put him on the front line of the 2014 Ebola outbreak and led to significant discoveries related to that virus.

“We were never expecting to see a case of Ebola, but it came to us, basically,” he said.

Garry and fellow Tulane infectious disease researcher Dr. John Schieffelin co-authored a genetic study of 1,600 Ebola virus genomes and followed the first 106 Ebola patients admitted to the Kenema Government Hospital.

Using the unprecedented data provided by the outbreak, Garry and Schieffelin found densely populated cities and porous borders between neighboring countries created a “perfect storm” that contributed to the unprecedented scope of the outbreak.

That work was featured in the April issue of Nature.

Garry also published findings in the New England Journal of Medicine about how the gastrointestinal symptoms were more prevalent in the West African strain of the Ebola virus than in Central African versions.

Finally, working with Tulane’s William Wimley, retired LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans professor William Gallaher and several other collaborators, Garry found that a compound produced in Ebola-infected patients could be the source of gastrointestinal symptoms that not only cause much of the patients' suffering but also contribute to how highly contagious the disease is because of all the infected bodily fluids from vomiting and diarrhea. Those findings were published in the Journal of Virology.

Follow Chad Calder on Twitter, @Chad_Calder.