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San Antonio researchers, facilities team up in quest for Ebola cure
June 29, 2017

Researcher Dr. Gabi Worwa, D.V.M., exits the decontamination room of the biosafety level 4 lab after working with the Ebola virus at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in 2014. The institute has been working on an Ebola vaccine for the past 10 years. Express-News file photo

By Jesse Pound, Staff Writer, San Antonio Express-News

As the Ebola virus stubbornly holds on, with another small outbreak this year in the Democratic Republic of Congo, scientists at two San Antonio research institutions are working together to find a treatment for the deadly disease.

Southwest Research Institute and Texas Biomedical Research Institute are currently collaborating on an Ebola study funded by the National Institutes for Health. They are working to turn a compound that may inhibit the Ebola virus into a medicine.

Robert Davey, a scientist at Texas Biomed, was the one who discovered the Ebola-fighting potential of tetrandrine, a compound found in an Asian herb similar to the Texas barberry. He's now working with SwRI scientists to turn the compound into a medicine.

The SwRI chemists send Davey potential drugs based on tetrandrine they think might work, and Davey and other Texas Biomed scientists test them in Texas Biomed's biosafety level 4 lab.

Davey tells them which of the medicinal compounds work in the lab, and Southwest turns them into pills, which are crushed up and fed to mice.

"It's very back and forth. It's very hard to get what changes are the ones that make that thing from the chemical factory into something like a medicine," Davey said. "You really have to alter the medicine in very small ways and see what improves its ability to protect the mice."

The two organizations have received a grant worth $3.7 million from the NIH to continue their work. Their main campuses sit near each other on the West Side.

"It is a beautiful example of how we as two institutes next door to each other complement each other, in terms of our strengths," said Dr. Larry Schlesinger, CEO and president of Texas Biomed. Texas Biomed announced last week that its board had approved building another bigger biosafety level 4 lab to improve its capability to study infectious diseases without a known cure, like Ebola.

There is a year left on the current grant from the NIH to study Ebola, during which time the focus will remain on refining the medicine in mice, Davey said. The next step will be to move into large-animal testing.

"We'll have a really good idea when that finishes of can this be moved into the clinic at that point," Davey said.

First discovered in 1976, Ebola virus disease causes hemorrhagic fever and is deadly in about 50 percent of cases, according to the World Health Organization. More than 11,000 people have died of suspected, probable or confirmed Ebola cases since the start of 2014, including four in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year, according to the WHO.

Part of Southwest's work involves Rhodium, a computer program that simulates how potential medicinal compounds attach to proteins and the potential side effects. Rhodium, which was recently upgraded to be four to eight times faster, allows scientists to skip a lot of the trial-and-error process that traditionally takes place in the laboratory, said Jonathan Bohmann, a principal scientist in the department of pharmaceuticals and bioengineering at SwRI.

Once Rhodium simulates the effect of the compounds, Bohmann can show the scientists involved a three-dimensional rendering of the target protein with the compound attached it.

"With all that together, we can screen, let's say, a million compounds" and winnow down the list of compounds to test, Bohmann said.

The two organizations also are partnered in another Ebola project funded by the Department of Defense. Texas BioMed is involved in other Ebola projects as well, raising the chances that the cure for the deadly disease will have a South Texas connection.

"So even if this (project) doesn't work out, we've got many other shots at goal, and I think it's all pretty promising," Davey said.


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