As a second person in the U.S. comes down with Ebola and the disease continues to kill hundreds daily in West Africa, urgency increases to find some sort of a cure.
Erica Ollmann Saphire, a scientist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, is helping lead a global effort to do just that.
Saphire is currently being sent antibodies for study from countries afflicted with Ebola.
But because she can't get the job done fast enough with current resources, she has started a crowdfunding project to raise money for the cause.
Saphire spoke with KPCC's Take Two about the research and immediate needs for trying to find a cure.
You've been studying Ebola for 11 years. Did you anticipate what's going on right now?
Sadly, we did. Knowing what the virus can do and what it's capable of we always wondered if one day there would be an outbreak like this, so the goal was to do the research we needed to make sure we knew why it was lethal and how it works and where we needed to fight it.
What is your role in working on a cure?
I'm the director of a global consortium to make antibody therapeutics like ZMapp. It had been thought for a long time that antibodies wouldn’t work against an Ebola virus. When in maybe 2012 it was discovered that they would as long you put several together. We formed this global group to say, "Ah, here's what we need." The free market is not going to support multiple Ebola therapies. Typically it's very rare, and everything has to be donated, because most people infected can’t afford expensive treatment. We need everyone on the same page to figure out what the single best cocktail ought to be. So everybody in the world donated their antibodies, and they came to my lab, and we're going to blind them, and we're going to compare them side by side and figure out what's best and why and which ones to mix together. So ZMapp was the first stage of that and was sort of the proof of concept. Now we're going to have hundreds of human antibodies rolling in from people that have survived this outbreak. We'd like to understand how they survived and what immune response they made and how we can use that information to make new treatments.
Once you’ve figured out what might have helped these people fight off Ebola, then what?
We would figure out what antibodies are best, which combination is most synergistic — which work together best — and then you express them to high levels in whatever biotechnology system you want to do. So you can grow them in plants, algae, tissue culture, and you test them in animals, and then eventually if they work you test them in people.
Is ZMapp gone?
It is, but they are making more. Mapp Bio and public health agency of Canada only discovered the ZMapp combination was so effective maybe seven months ago. And based on the brilliant animal efficacy data, that means how well it worked in monkeys, the human trial was scheduled for 2015. So not that much human material had been made when this outbreak happened. Mapp Bio gave away everything they had, and they are making more. They are planting greenhouses full of it in Kentucky. They are working with other groups like the Gates Foundation to grow more of it in other sources, because it certainly seems to work.
You've turned to crowdfunding to raise money for your equipment. What are your immediate needs?
We are about to have hundreds of human antibodies come rolling in. The support we have is kind of peace-time level funding, and right now we are at war with this virus. The funding that we had was to study about 150 antibodies, mostly raised in mice against 1995's Ebola virus. Well, that's not going to work anymore. We need to understand the 2014 version of Ebola. It's got at least 55 mutations. Call it Ebola 2.0. And we need to understand these human antibodies: How did these humans survive? That's going to be a three-fold scale up of what we need to do, and we need to do it fast. So I can't make more hours in the day, but I can increase the speed at which we can process and purify and analyze the samples by getting some better, faster equipment.
We've talked to doctors who say the most important thing right now is to isolate the sick and get basic supplies to the infected region. Do you worry that money for a cure is just too much of an optimistic thing right now and money should go toward beds and health care workers?
It's true that none of these experimental therapies are going to be available in enough doses to treat everybody; it's just not possible. To contain this outbreak the focus really needs to be on medical supplies and medical care. We just can't have people dying in the streets and infecting their families at home. They need to be cared for by doctors and nurses that have supplies to protect themselves, but the contain and control isn't enough. One of the things about crowdfunding is it gives people the control. They can choose what they want to invest in and maybe they want to put some of their resources toward supplies like medical gloves and bleach and maybe they want to put some of their resources toward getting a cure ready to treat this thing.