Scripps researchers
Scripps Research graduate student Liam King and Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire,. Photo by Madeline McCurry-Schmidt

Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla report significant progress in developing a treatment for the deadly Marburg virus.

With a mortality rate of up to 88 percent, the Marburg virus can rip through a community in days—giving it the same pandemic potential as Ebola. There is no available treatment, and during a 2005 outbreak in Angola killed 329 of 374 infected patients.

A team led by Erica Ollmann Saphire, who has also worked on Ebola, created a map of the virus’s structure and revealed through high-resolution imaging how the promising antibody MR191 targets and neutralizes the virus. This antibody could finally give doctors a way to successfully treat the disease.

The work was reported by Scripps Research in a publication this week.

“This is the first antibody therapeutic found that could treat Marburg,” said Erica Ollmann Saphire, Scripps Research professor and senior author of the study.

“With this new structure, we can start to see how this treatment works,” added Liam King, a graduate student and first author of the study. “We have also learned new things about the virus itself that could lead to new treatments and vaccines.”

The scientists used a high-resolution imaging technique called X-ray crystallography and found that MR191 neutralizes the virus by mimicking the host receptor and plugging into a spot on the viral surface called the receptor binding site. With this site occupied, the virus can no longer attach itself to human cells and spread infection.

Ollmann Saphire said the next step is to study how known mutations in Marburg evade such antibodies and to use that information to devise second-line treatments. Soon, the team hopes to see the antibody therapeutic go into clinical trials. As part of this effort, study collaborators at Vanderbilt University have licensed MR191 to a commercial partner.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.