Medical personnel train to assist Lassa fever victims
Medical personnel train to assist Lassa fever victims in Sierra Leone. Photo by Bertrand Glorot via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology have identified the way that antibodies attach to the virus behind deadly Lassa fever, pointing the way toward developing a vaccine.

The study by Kathryn Hastie and Erica Ollmann Saphire, published Thursday in the authoritative journal Cell, identified and then reverse-engineered the molecular properties shared by antibodies that are particularly efficient at neutralizing the virus.

The research showed that most neutralizing antibodies bind to the same spot on the surface of Lassa virus, providing a map for future vaccine design.

Model shows antibodies attaching to a Lassa virus
Model shows antibodies attaching to a white Lassa virus. Courtesy La Jolla Institute for Immunology

“The beauty of structural biology is that it gives you the ability to dissect the molecular details at high resolution to explain precisely how something works,” said structural immunologist Ollmann Saphire. “Once you do, you have a blueprint to engineer potent immunotherapeutics or a vaccine that elicits the desired immune response.”

Lassa fever is an animal-borne viral illness that is endemic in parts of West Africa, including Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, killing hundreds annually. The illness was discovered in 1969 and is named after the town in Nigeria where the first cases occurred.

The La Jolla Institute for Immunology an independent, nonprofit research organization focused on understanding how the immune system works.

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