Dr. Leslie Lobel takes blood samples Dr. Leslie Lobel takes blood samples Dr. Leslie Lobel (second from left) takes blood samples from African Ebola survivors for his vaccine research. (Photo: Dr. Leslie Lobel)

Ebola expert: U.S. scare should serve as wake-up call

Virologist working on Ebola vaccine has been researching outbreak possibilities for years.

It’s been several decades since the United States last braced for a virus epidemic the likes of Ebola. But Dr. Leslie Lobel, who has been following Ebola patients for a dozen years in Africa, told From the Grapevine that the world's infectious disease experts are prepared to counter the deadly outbreak.

“Fifty years ago we were dealing with eradicating polio, smallpox and yellow fever, which had similarly high mortality rates,” said the American-born Lobel, an Ebola researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. “The world has been asleep for 40 years regarding infectious diseases and Ebola is the wake-up call."

Lobel has been working on a vaccine for Ebola using knowledge gained from studying the immune systems of survivors in Africa. As the United States guards against the worst outbreak in history and the medical community speeds up vaccine research, Lobel’s work is finally gaining public attention and funding. He’s part of an international group of researchers, drug companies and government agencies formed earlier this year by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to find the best treatment for the disease ravaging parts of West Africa. A few experimental treatments are available in limited supply, two of which may be ready for large-scale testing in West Africa in a few months, according to a World Health Organization report, but there is still no cure.

Dr. Leslie Lobel meets with African Ebola survivors. Dr. Leslie Lobel (center, in blue striped shirt) meets with African Ebola survivors. Also pictured: Dr. John Dye from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. (Photo: Dr. Leslie Lobel)

Lobel travels from Israel to Africa several times a year taking blood samples from more than 100 survivors for his research. “I’ve had a nice, quiet life for a long time. Outbreaks in Africa were fairly well contained,” he said. 

But in the past few months, Ebola cases began soaring to become an international health emergency. To date, the epidemic has infected nearly 14,000 people and killed almost 5,000, mostly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to the WHO report.

The elusive disease – which spreads through bodily fluids like blood, saliva and semen – only recently created a global buzz when a Liberian man, Thomas Duncan, became the first patient diagnosed with the disease in the United States. He died in early October. Two nurses, who were treating him in Texas, also were infected and are recuperating.

Lobel’s experimental vaccine targets the strain of virus causing the most outbreaks in Africa over the past decade. It is similar to the prototype drug ZMapp most often given to patients, but differs from other vaccines in that it uses the antibodies in the blood to fight the illness instead of plasma or a whole blood transfusion.

Lobel and Dye take samples from Ebola survivorsDr. Leslie Lobel (far right) and Dr. John Dye take blood samples from African Ebola survivors. (Photo: Dr. Leslie Lobel)

One mystery of the fast-moving virus is why it kills about half of those infected. Lobel hopes studying the immune system of survivors will help him understand why some people die from the disease and others don’t. Still, it’ll be three to five years before his vaccine is on the market, he said.

Lobel receives part of the NIH’s $28 million, five-year grant to help colleagues and competing drug companies create the most effective antibody cocktail for the disease. The group includes Mapp Biopharmaceutical, which produces ZMapp, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. Lobel, a native New Yorker who received his medical and doctorate degrees from Columbia University, will join other NIH grant partners in San Diego Nov. 4 to discuss their progress.

“Dr. Lobel provides our critical, on-the-ground effort and forged links to the people in Africa that need these therapies most,” Dr. Erica Saphire, a professor at The Scripps Research Institute in San Diego who heads the consortium, told From the Grapevine. “His antibodies from survivors of infection will explain to us why some humans survive, what a successful human immune response against these viruses looks like, and how antibodies made by people differ from those previously available, which were made by mice.”

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