BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

March 02, 2015

Research Roundup: Progress towards a vaccine for HIV, a rapid diagnostic and experimental drug for Ebola, and congressional support for global health research

Senior Program Assistant
GHTC

A new compound has successfully protected monkeys from HIV, according to a study published in Nature last week. The compound stimulates the production of claw-shaped proteins that are able to simultaneously block the two different parts of white blood cells—the CD4 and CCR5 binding sites—to which the HIV virus normally attaches. After scientists at the Scripps Research Institute “vaccinated” monkeys with the compound, they repeatedly tried and failed to infect the monkeys with large doses of varied HIV strains over the course of a year. The team will next test if they are able to slow the replication of virus and the progress of the diseases in monkeys infected with HIV, before starting human trials.

Last week, the World Health Organization approved the ReEBOV Antigen Rapid Test for Ebola, which requires only a test tube and a piece of paper and can provide results in approximately 15 minutes. The test is simple to administer and interpret, with the lead developer explaining “a drop of blood is placed on the paper, and if two lines appear, then it’s positive for Ebola.” The use of blood, however, requires a ‘biosafety cabinet’ in the form of either a box or a tent that can protect health workers from the virus. The test also has specificity and sensitivity issues, only detecting 92% of cases and with approximately 15% of uninfected people testing positive for Ebola.

CBS correspondent Bob Simon investigated ZMapp, an experimental drug for Ebola, as part of his final story for 60 minutes before his death last month. Prior to the current Ebola epidemic, ZMapp had only been tested on monkeys; however, last summer, it was used to treat seven patients, five of whom survived. The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases commenced clinical trials for ZMapp in Liberia on Friday. ZMapp is created using tobacco plants, which are saturated with a gene that stimulates the production of Ebola-fighting antibodies. As the plant grows, increasing rates of antibodies are produced—a process Simon likened to “a Xerox machine for antibodies.”

Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last Wednesday on the US Department of State’s 2016 budget proposal. The Committee’s Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) emphasized the importance of global health “research, infrastructure, and personnel,” in preventing future epidemics such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa and expressed his dismay at “proposed cuts to global health programs dealing with tuberculosis [and] neglected tropical diseases.”

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