Ever since a doctor from Fort Worth became one of two Americans recently infected with the Ebola virus on a mercy trip in Liberia, the Western public has developed a renewed interest in the rare disease, often described as incurable.
For researchers like University of Texas virologist Dr. Thomas Geisbert, this means they're more likely to finally get all that money they need to continue studying Ebola, which might just be a few human tests and millions of dollars away from a cure, after all. "We have developed treatments that can completely protect monkeys against Ebola if we give it different times after exposure," Geisbert says.
The next step for Geisbert would be to test those treatments on healthy humans. To do that, he just needs millions of dollars. Big pharmaceutical companies seem like obvious candidates to put up that money. It's "something that big pharmaceutical companies could do," Geisbert says, except that they won't. "I've talked to representatives of those companies, at different meetings and things, and pretty much was told it's just not a moneymaker."
Geisbert's career as an Ebola researcher began when he was an intern at a U.S. Army medical research lab in the late '80s. He later was featured as a character in Richard Preston's 1995 non-fiction thriller The Hot Zone. (Geisbert helps discover a new strain of Ebola with another researcher, but they accidentally expose themselves to it, and decide to test their blood for the infection regularly and not tell anyone).
In 2010, Geisbert moved a little closer to his ranch in Abilene when he began working at the University of Texas' Biosafety Level 4 lab in Galveston, one of just 15 in the nation qualified to study pathogens as infectious as Ebola.
In March, before West Africa experienced the massive outbreak, Geisbert was one of a large group of scientists from 15 institutions who received a 5-year, $28 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the antibody cocktails that could cure Ebola.
But those treatments showing promise in primates won't get FDA approval until they're tested on healthy humans next, Phase I of the clinical trial process. That's the thing that will cost all the millions more. "Everybody's been in the same boat, as far as there's kind of been that little hang-up with the human trials," Geisbert says.
Dr. Kent Brantly, the doctor from Fort Worth who got sick, received one of those experimental treatments when he was still in Africa. A small drug company called Mapp Biopharmaceuticals sent a dose of a serum called ZMapp over for the Americans who got infected, warning that it had only been tested on animals. It's too early to say if it worked.
Mapp is one of a handful of small biotech that is now partnering with the researchers under the big NIH grant. Though the interest in rare diseases is there with small companies like Mapp, the big money isn't.
"It really, in my opinion, is going to take government support or some kind of a philanthropist, like the Gates foundation or something, to come in and support this," Geisbert says. Either that, or enough panicked Americans to create some financial incentive for Big Pharma.