Scientists to tackle virus that could be terror weapon
Web Posted: 10/09/2007 12:52 AM CDT
Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research has a new $1.5 million grant to begin unraveling the mysteries of the Marburg virus, an uncommon but potentially deadly African virus that federal security officials say could be in the hands of terrorist groups that want to turn it into a biological weapon.
Marburg virus is from the same family of viruses as Ebola. Both are endemic to Africa and cause high fevers that can lead to internal bleeding and death in humans and nonhuman primates. Marburg virus is named for a city in Germany where it was first recognized in 1967, after an outbreak among scientists there and what is now Serbia who caught it from monkeys imported from Uganda.
There has never been a recorded outbreak in the United States, but little is known about Marburg and there are no effective treatments or cures.
The Homeland Security Department awarded the grant so scientists can begin studying the genetic code of the virus and understanding its effect on the human immune system. The ultimate goal is to find a way to prevent or treat the disease, said Jean Patterson, director of virology for the foundation.
"We are looking for the Achilles' heel that you can target with drugs," Patterson said.
Partners in the research are Eastern Virginia Medical School and Incogen Inc., a private biotechnology company in Williamsburg, Va. Animal studies will involve monkeys and will occur in the foundation's high-security, or biosafety level 4, laboratory. Scientists there work in protective gear to keep from becoming infected with incurable diseases.
Patterson said scientists don't know where the virus lives in nature and how it jumps into primates and people. Some researchers suspect that bats or rodents harbor the virus and spread it to other species, but that is unproven.
The virus causes flu-like symptoms that can rapidly progress to high fevers, jaundice and multiple organ failure.
There are seven known strains of Marburg, and fatality rates are very high for some of them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded just five other outbreaks of Marburg since 1967, all in African countries.
The most recent was in Angola in 2004 and 2005; it killed 90 percent of the 272 people who were infected, the CDC said.