UT researchers collaborate to create a vaccine for Marburg disease

Holly Herman

Between 2014 and 2016 the West African Ebola epidemic took the lives of nearly 12,000 people, according to BBC News. Now researchers at UT’s Medical Branch in Galveston are working to make sure an outbreak never reaches this magnitude again.

Thomas Geisbert, professor of microbiology and immunology at UT Medical Galveston, said his lab is currently studying the Marburg disease, a sister virus of Ebola that causes nearly identical diseases and similar mortality rates. He said his lab is funded in part by biological defense funds from the federal government.

“After 9/11, the government realized that certain types of viruses like Ebola could be used for nefarious purposes,” Geisbert said. “(The government) put more means of research funding and programs to find cures and vaccines in the event that people such as terrorists got a hold of the virus.”

Geisbert and his team recently created a treatment to that Marburg virus that uses a small piece of the Ebola virus to help one’s body create antibodies, which fight off the virus once someone is infected. This new antibody is more specific in targeting parts of Marburg disease than those used in the past, such as the antibody Z-mapp that was used to treat the first cases of Ebola in the U.S.

“Antibodies have been used for years; you take the medicine that cured Ebola in the past and use it in new patients,” Geisbert said. “The new antibody is very specific and focused on parts of the virus. It works a lot better.”

The developed antibody was found to be 100 percent effective in protecting Marburg virus in animals, though it has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for human testing. 

Geisbert’s lab is part of the only Biosafety Level 4 laboratory in Texas, meaning employees need high clearance to access the lab and many precautions are taken. He said the lab is located in a high-security research facility where he and other researchers work in spacesuits much like those seen in the movie E.T. 

“Working in a space suit has been the hardest part of researching,” he said. “It takes two to three times as long in a space suit than in a normal setting and there’s constant worry that there’s going to be a lab accident.”

Geisbert said that during the Ebola crisis, facility infrastructure played an important role in the survival of patients.

“The situation is very different in Africa than it is in the U.S.,” he said. “The facilities are a lot more rudimentary. For example, it helps to have world-class medical care on top of developing effective antivirals. Of the 10 people that were treated in the U.S., only one person died.”

Geisbert said researchers and medical care physicians are better prepared today than they were when Ebola broke out. He added that while many lives were lost, creating a treatment was a huge success story. 

“We want to develop cures,” he said. “There were a lot of lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak. With travel, the important part is that we need to make people aware of these viruses and tell them not to fear viruses like Marburg and Ebola, because now we have proper diagnoses and ways of identifying and treating them.”