October 27, 2005
NEW ORLEANS - The National Institutes of Health awarded Tulane University a grant of more than $3.8 million for a three-year study designed to develop better tests for one of the deadliest group of diseases called viral hemorrhagic fevers. In partnership with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Ft. Detrick, Md., and three corporate partners, Robert Garry and his Tulane team will develop modern diagnostic tests for the Lassa fever virus and other hemorrhagic fevers.
"This project has importance for the public health and also for biodefense, because these viruses are potential bioterror agents," says Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane University School of Medicine.
In the first project of its kind, Garry will lead the effort to develop tests that would not require biosafety level 4 (the highest level) laboratories, the requirement for tests currently available. Hemorrhagic fevers begin with fever and muscle aches, then may worsen until the patient becomes very ill with severe bleeding (hemorrhage), lung or kidney problems, and shock.Lassa fever is an acute viral illness that occurs in West Africa, where it is a significant cause of sickness and death.
The virus, a member of the virus family called arena viruses, is a single-stranded RNA virus that is spread by rats. Between 15 - 20 percent of patients hospitalized for Lassa fever die from the illness. Occasionally epidemics of Lassa fever break out, during which the death rate can reach 50 percent.
The number of Lassa virus infections per year in West Africa is estimated at 100,000 to 300,000, with approximately 5,000 deaths. Of people admitted to hospitals in West Africa, 10 - 16 percent have Lassa fever, which indicates the serious impact of the disease on the population of this region.
"It's important that we develop better diagnostic tests because the main symptom initially is fever, and that could be so many different diseases and Lassa fever is spread easily from person to person," Garry says. "We plan to make viral proteins by recombinant techniques in large amounts, to work in assays to diagnose the hemorrhagic fevers. We will make proteins that cannot cause the disease, and we'll make them for use in a biosafety level 1 lab, so these assays will be useable in the field in Africa."
Working on the study along with Garry and his team is Dan Bausch, associate professor of tropical medicine at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, who has extensive experience in West Africa. The three companies participating in developing the new tests are: Autoimmune Technologies L.L.C. of New Orleans, BioFactura Inc. of Rockville, Md., and Corgenix Medical Corporation of Denver.
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