UTMB Scientists Part of Effort to Combat Ebola

UTMB team has received a $26 million NIH grant to research Ebola


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Last March, Geisbert and his team at UTMB in Galveston won a $26 million research grant from the National Institutes of Health.

They’re going to study three different treatments for Ebola.

“We’re working on all counter-measures for Ebola, so this is both vaccines and treatments,” Geisbert said.

Geisbert did not work on ZMapp, the experimental drug given to a missionary doctor and a few others who survived. But he is working with the company that developed ZMapp, testing other antibodies to Ebola.

He’s also working on a vaccine that can be given after infection, kind of like the rabies vaccine is given after an animal bite. And he’s working on a drug that would block Ebola through genetic engineering.

He said the best treatment may come from combining the drugs.

“Anybody who is familiar with the HIV field, you saw a lot of progress in HIV when they started combining treatments that attacked the virus, had different mechanisms of action,” he explained.

Geisbert came to Galveston in 2010, the same year the Galveston National Lab opened.

“If you’re familiar with the story of ‘The Hot Zone,’ I’m the guy that co-discovered the Reston species of Ebola virus,” Geisbert said. “So that kind of really set my career up.”

UTMB has one of the few level 4 biosafety labs in the country. Level 4 labs can house Ebola and other dangerous pathogens like smallpox. The labs use bio-containment such as multiple doors and air filters, and scientists must wear a sort of biological space suit and hood, and shower upon exiting.


In Galveston, BSL four labs have the tightest safety controls, so scientists can work with the deadliest and most dangerous pathogens on the planet — germs like Ebola. Back in 2010, News 88.7 Health and Science reporter Carrie Feibel took a tour in the last months before the viruses are brought in and the lab goes “hot.” After that, only approved researchers can get in and out. enlarge


Geisbert said Ebola is a fascinating virus for scientists, in part because it has an unusual shape.

“It’s a neat-looking virus,” he said. “Most viruses are like spherical-shaped, and this thing looks like pieces of spaghetti strung out all over the place.”

Geisbert was drawn to the deadly virus because it’s a challenge, but he points out it’s not actually a very efficient virus, when compared to the flu or even a cold.

“When you have a virus that kills 90% of the people it infects, that’s not an effective virus, if you think about it,” he said. “The goal of a virus isn’t to kill its host, that’s not a good way to make more of yourself.”

Geisbert has traveled to Africa, and he’s quite concerned about the latest outbreak.

“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, because historically these outbreaks have occurred in central Africa, they’ve been small, and you know, you have public health organizations and different groups that have done a fantastic job,” he said.

“They go in, they identify the cases, they do really good trace contacting — you know they find out who’s been in contact with who, quarantine everybody. Again, sad for that area, but it burns out.”

But this time the virus is not burning itself out. It keeps popping up in new places, and is now in five countries. 

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