- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Judith White, who runs a research lab at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health to test potential countermeasures against Ebola in March — just as Liberia was confirming its first two cases of the deadly virus.

The project, a collaboration of the university, the Army and a drug company, showed promising early results: Mice injected with two compounds — one used in a drug to treat female infertility, the other found in a breast cancer drug — showed immunity to Ebola.

But a few months later, not long after Doctors Without Borders deemed the virus “out of control” in West Africa, Ms. White learned that her proposal fell short of qualifying for funding.

“A lot of us are feeling frustrated because we have some promising things, and we want to contribute to this,” Ms. White said in an interview.

“We’re sitting back here. I’m not a health care worker. I can’t go to Liberia and do anything there. But this is who we are. We’re scientists, and we do the background work,” she said.

As the public clamors for cures or vaccines, and top administration officials blame funding shortages for the lack of progress, it’s researchers who are enmeshed in work who eventually will achieve critical breakthroughs.

SEE ALSO: Ebola Czar Day One: Mr. Klain’s debut

Researchers at U.Va. and other labs say important discoveries that have been made could and should be part of the fight.

Ms. White’s lab has been working on ways to study the entry stage of the virus by developing particles that act like Ebola but are harmless in the lab.

Three weeks ago, the university announced that other researchers — Zygmunt Derewenda and Daniel Engel — discovered that a key viral protein in Ebola had a molecular architecture unlike any other known protein.

Yet another researcher, Lukas Tamm, figured out how a glycoprotein on the Ebola virus changes its shape to form a “fist” that punches its way into healthy cells.

“This shape change was totally unexpected because this was not the case for any other virus,” Mr. Tamm said in an interview.

Mr. Tamm said the research isn’t quick, but only by unlocking the mysteries of how the virus behaves can scientists figure out a way to stop Ebola.

“You need to know what these molecules do, what the cells do, what the body does with them, to design a strategy to fight it,” Mr. Tamm said. “And that’s something the public doesn’t always understand. Without these basic, fundamental findings, you can’t even think about treatment.”

Mr. Tamm and Ms. White have been investigating Ebola for years. They are happy to discuss their work, but they are frustrated that research at the university and elsewhere hasn’t received the attention it deserves until an outbreak occurs.

“That’s often the problem with politics and politicians — [a problem] gets the attention it needs to only when something like this happens,” said Mr. Tamm. “And then at the same time and often the same people scream, ‘Why haven’t we done more earlier?’ And before they wouldn’t fund a grant — and this one is probably just one of thousands of examples.”

Race against the clock

More than a year ago, Ms. White and more than a dozen other scientists from UVa., the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the drug company Zalicus published findings that suggested a possible breakthrough against Ebola.

In mice, researchers found two drugs that appeared to prevent the virus from delivering its RNA to healthy cells.

“Ebola virus is in a race against the clock when it gets into the cell,” Jason Shoemaker, a postdoctoral fellow in Ms. White’s lab, said at the time. “We want to lock the door on it.”

Ms. White said idea is to repurpose medicine already approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The lab workers at UVa. don’t wear protective gear that resembles spacesuits because researchers work with the shell of the virus, which is virtually harmless without the RNA. After Ms. White’s lab developed particles to study the entry stage of the virus, Zalicus and the Army approached her for help in screening compounds that appeared to show promise in stopping Ebola.

The researchers narrowed their focus to the drugs clomiphene and toremifene, which effectively blocked Ebola in mice by preventing the virus from delivering its RNA, according to the university.

Lost time

Nearly a year before Ebola came into the U.S., Ms. White expressed optimism but said more testing was needed on those and other compounds.

Her research proposal was sent to the NIH in March, but Ms. White said word came in June that, while the project received a good score, it was not high enough to earn funding.

Though she plans to resubmit the proposal next month, “a lot of time has been lost” and the lab is smaller, she said.

A spokeswoman for the NIH said the agency doesn’t comment on specific proposals.

NIH officials have blamed budget cuts for the difficulties it encountered in containing and treating Ebola, saying a cure or vaccine would have been closer with more consistent, stable funding.

“The loss of NIH purchasing power over the last 10 years, especially with sequestration, has slowed down biomedical research in virtually all areas. NIH-funded Ebola research would be further along if that had not happened,” the agency said in a statement.

According to budget figures, funding for the NIH division that handles infectious diseases jumped from less than $1.8 billion in 2000 to $4.8 billion in 2010 but dropped to $4.4 billion in 2014.

When Barack Obama was about to start his first presidential term, the Department of Health and Human Services told the incoming administration in a transition briefing that there is no clear formula on how the NIH sets priorities for its money.

“Common measures, such as disease incidence, prevalence, years of potential life lost, costs to society, or costs to the federal government all yield different answers about which diseases to emphasize,” the agency told the transition team.

Ms. White said lobbying for money on behalf of research for many other diseases makes things harder.

“Diabetes has an advocacy group,” she said. “Heart disease has an advocacy group. Cancer has an advocacy group. There’s no advocacy group for these emerging infectious diseases. And with Ebola, nobody ever thought it would come to the U.S.”

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