Research Roundup: Antibiotics, Zika vaccine R&D, and Ebola and malaria co-infection
Penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic, works by targeting certain proteins—appropriately named penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs)—that play a critical role in building and maintaining the bacterial cell wall. Now, scientists at Harvard Medical School have identified another class of proteins which play a similar role and could be a target for the next generation of antibiotics. The road to discovery started in 2003, when it was determined that certain bacteria could grow without PBPs. In their absence, the proteins responsible for maintaining cell wall shape, elongation, division, and spore formation (SEDS proteins) continued to function normally, enabling the bacteria to thrive. SEDS proteins are found in more types of bacteria than PBPs, and consequently a treatment targeting SEDS proteins could have even broader application than penicillin.
On February 22, the Obama Administration requested US$1.9 billion in emergency funding for the Zika response, and 181 days later, Congress has yet to approve it. Consequently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has shifted $81 million from other programs to support Zika vaccine research and development—$34 million of which will go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and $47 million of which will be allocated to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Earlier this year, HHS repurposed $589 million in funding from the Ebola response to combat Zika, however, that funding will run out by the end of this month. The NIH will use its funding for human clinical trials of its leading Zika vaccine candidate, however, the agency will need an additional $196 million for additional trials and to advance a second and third candidate. BARDA’s funding will enable the agency to secure contracts and establish partnerships for Zika vaccine development, however, an additional $342 million will be required to continue its work.
New research suggests that infection with the Plasmodium parasite, which causes malaria, could reduce the severity of Ebola infection. A team of scientists at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has examined 1,868 blood samples from an Ebola treatment unit in Liberia—1,182 of which tested positive for Ebola—concluding that patients co-infected with malaria were 20 percent more likely to survive. These results held true even when controlling for the patient’s age and viral load. Viral load actually correlated with survival rates: those with the highest levels of Plasmodium had an 83 percent survival rate, compared to 46 percent of those only infected with Ebola. At the treatment center, all patients were provided with antimalarials, and consequently, treatment for malaria was not responsible for survival rates. While the reason for this trend remains a mystery, Drs. Emmie de Wit and Kyle Rosenke—the study’s lead scientists—suspect that an existing malaria infection expedites the immune response to Ebola, consequently increasing survival rates.