Tracking down Silent Killers

35 million euros for excellent research consortium to develop new immunotherapeutic treatments for emerging viral diseases

viral diseases
The research consortium focuses on the clinical development of immunotherapeutic treatments for Ebola, alphaviruses and Lassa virus infections. (Image: Courtesy of La Jolla Institute for Immunology)

Emerging viral diseases is a term used to refer to diseases caused by pathogens such as the Ebola virus. Whilst vaccines can protect people against these diseases, there is an urgent need for treatment options after infection. A new global research consortium has received 35 million dollars in funding from the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, USA, within the context of the Centres for Excellence in Translational Research programme in order to carry out research in this very important area. Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) is involved in the international research consortium together with partners such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both USA, and industrial project partners.

An infection with viruses such as Ebola, Lassa or hantaviruses can cause a haemorrhagic fever, leading to serious organ damage which, certainly in the case of the Ebola virus, often ends fatally. In recent years there have been frequent outbreaks of Ebola in Africa which spread rapidly and proved difficult to contain. In Bavaria, too, there have been several cases of infection with hantaviruses, usually transmitted to people via mouse droppings.

Although scientists are working hard to develop new vaccines, the situation on the ground, for example in African countries, makes it difficult to ensure a successful and widespread immunisation campaign. Furthermore, vaccines are a predominantly preventative measure and do not help if the infection has already taken hold. Finding options for treating people after infection remains vitally important.

‘The aim of the consortium is to find out how the immune system of disease survivors succeeded in fending off the infection,’ says Prof. Dr. Falk Nimmerjahn, Chair of Genetics at FAU and a member of the international consortium.

Together with Harvard University, scientists at FAU are focussing in particular on analysing the antibody response. Antibodies are proteins which the immune system produces to match pathogens and which should in principle be capable of fending off diseases such as these. It is not clear, however, why this only succeeds very rarely for certain diseases.

Based on previous research conducted by Prof. Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, USA, who is leading the new consortium, it is known that certain varieties of antibodies correlate with protection against the deadly diseases. Two aspects are important in this respect: how well the antibodies manage to attach to the virus and, in particular, how successful they are at activating immune cells. ‘Each viral infection leaves what can be seen as a ‘molecular footprint’ in the form of a specific antibody response. If we manage to crack the code present in this ‘footprint’ and isolate the varieties of antibodies which are capable of disarming the virus, we will be able to produce these specific antibodies and give them to patients who have fallen ill to the disease,’ explains Prof. Nimmerjahn. This would be an important step towards being able to contain outbreaks more rapidly and treat large numbers of patients until effective vaccines are available across the board.