UH Med Now

EBOLA: Q and A With Vaccine Developer Dr. Axel Lehrer of Tropical Medicine

Date: October 15th, 2014 in Care, Research    Print or PDF

A colloquium at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM) September 17 was titled, “Ebola: What do we know?” And it turns out the answer is, quite a bit.

The auditorium was filled close to capacity by people who were interested in learning more. News reporters, including Manolo Morales of KHON2 News and Videographer Greg Lau, shown above, called for days afterwards to interview one of our panelists, Dr. Axel Lehrer, for help explaining ebola to news viewers and readers.

Assistant Professor Axel Lehrer, PhD, is with JABSOM’s Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology. He is actively working on a vaccine for the Ebola Virus. We spoke with him about the disease which is currently causing a crisis with its rapid spread in West Africa, and fear in other parts of the world, too.

What was the reason for having the Ebola colloquium now and who was the intended audience?

Dr. Lehrer: Due to the increasingly large numbers of cases in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the public, but particularly also the healthcare community is getting concerned about Ebola Virus Disease. This seminar was scheduled to give a status update about current knowledge, observations and responses to students and faculty at UH, as well as the interested public. Attendees included representatives from the Hawai’i State Department of Health and the military.

The auditorium was filled with people interested in the Ebola crisis response.

The auditorium was filled with people interested in the Ebola crisis response.

As you mentioned Hawai’i – what is the likelihood of us seeing cases here in the state?

Dr. Lehrer: Due to Hawaiʻi’s distance from the outbreak it is very unlikely that a person showing disease symptoms would be able to arrive unnoticed. However, should any person with recent travel history to the Ebola affected areas visit a doctor or hospital with unclear symptoms of a viral disease, local hospitals and the State Department of Health are well prepared to properly diagnose the infectious agent and arrange care for the person following guidelines prepared by the CDC.

What is the current knowledge about the virus causing this disease?
Dr. Lehrer: Ebola virus (or more precisely, Zaire ebolavirus) is a member of the Filovirus family. These are viruses known for their high fatality rates that typically occur sporadically as outbreaks in Africa. The virus is only spread by direct person-to-person contact and will not be transmitted before signs of disease can be seen in a patient.

Dr. Lehrer has worked in Hawai'i on developing an Ebola Virus Vaccine

Dr. Lehrer has worked in Hawai’i on developing an Ebola Virus Vaccine.

You are actually working on Ebola virus? How did you get involved in the research?

Dr. Lehrer: Over ten years ago, when I was working for a local Biotech company, Hawai’i Biotech, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) approached us to test if a vaccine platform that Hawaii Biotech had developed for a dengue virus vaccine could be used to generate an Ebola vaccine. With USAMRIID we were then able to show that we can protect mice against challenge with the virus. Later work done in collaboration with NIH laboratories demonstrated protection in guinea pigs and monkeys. We are fortunate that we have been able to work with leading Ebola virus experts in the Mainland laboratories to conduct this important work.

Has your vaccine be tested in humans?

Dr. Lehrer: Unfortunately to advance a vaccine into human clinical testing requires a lot of funding. So we are hoping to soon be able to find a way to fund the additional research and development work so we can hopefully soon help to prevent further spread of the Ebola virus using a safe and efficacious vaccine.

What other thoughts do you have on the control of this devastating epidemic?

Dr. Lehrer: One of the bottle necks in the field currently is the availability and throughput of diagnostic assays which are based on detecting the virus genomes. For our vaccine development work we had to develop reliable assays that could potentially be used to also diagnose the response to an Ebola virus infection in the field. We hope that we will soon be able to transfer the assay to Western Africa and test if that hypothesis is correct.

Editor’s Note: Our other guest panelists included Dr. Erlaine Bello, Associate Professor of Medicine, Chair, Infection Prevention and Control Committee, The Queen’s Medical Center; and John Berestecky, PhD, Kapi`olani Community College Professor of Microbiology. Stay tuned here for a video clip from the colloquium. 

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