UH researcher gets $6.3 million to test Ebola vaccine on other viruses

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

KAKAAKO, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - One of the top vaccine researchers at the University of Hawaiii Medical School has secured millions of dollars to continue his work on a first-of-its-kind medication to fight the deadly Ebola virus.

The grant, which totals $6.35 million dollars was awarded to John A. Burns School of Medicine researcher Dr. Axel Lehrer, Ph.D. and his team of 10 other scientists as part of a public-private partnership with two biomedical companies, Hawai'i Biotech and Soligenex.

"We're now going into the animal studies that will tell us if the vaccine actually works in humans," Dr. Lehrer told Hawaii News Now on Wednesday. 

The deadly Ebola virus first appeared in 1976, in an African village near the Ebola River, from which it derives its name. The virus is passed from person to person through bodily secretions.

Dr. Lehrer says the mortality rate is between 40 to 90-percent. If things go as Dr. Lehrer hopes, there are two elements that will make his vaccine unique enough to even work on other types of similar viruses.

For one, it will be based on a protein.

"Our protein, it just goes in, the body sees it, the body will make its response against it, and then hopefully you're protected," said Dr. Lehrer. "Our platform is based completely, it is just a protein, so there's nothing that can really go wrong."

Another quality that Dr. Lehrer hopes will make his vaccine special is that it will be heat stable. In fact, he's already had success storing and testing powdered prototypes under simulated high temperatures, up to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, like those found in Africa.

"At that temperature, we were able, after three months, to still immunize mice," Lehrer said. "It could potentially be in a powder form, a dry stable formulation that then can be shipped to where it is most needed."

Dr. Lehrer has been at this for 15 years now and so far has already hit one milestone: protection in non-human primates against the Ebola virus, something he says is one of the hardest to achieve.

The harder step will be to see if he can eventually protect humans. Once his work is done, Dr. Lehrer believes his vaccine could be ready for the open market in five to ten years.

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