By Lisa Brown

MED’s Corley Appointed NEIDL Director

September 23rd, 2014 in Uncategorized

Takes charge at critical moment in research into infectious diseases

One of Ronald Corley’s first tasks as NEIDL director will be to identify the top three areas to focus recruiting efforts on. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

One of Ronald Corley’s first tasks as NEIDL director will be to identify the top three areas to focus recruiting efforts on. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Ronald Corley, whose five years as associate director of BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) saw the lab overcome several legal and political challenges, has been appointed NEIDL director, effective October 1. Corley will continue as a School of Medicine professor and chair of microbiology, but will no longer be Medical Campus associate provost for research.

Announcing Corley’s appointment in a message to the Boston University community, President Robert A. Brown describes the new director as “an outstanding scientist and a collaborative leader.”

Corley succeeds John R. Murphy, a MED professor of medicine and microbiology, who had been NEIDL interim director since 2011. Brown says he is grateful to Murphy, “who has been instrumental in bringing the laboratories through the arduous regulatory processes and the initial launch of operations.”

“Dr. Corley’s leadership and vision will allow the NEIDL to reach its potential of being one of the premier centers for research on emerging and deadly infectious diseases,” says Gloria S. Waters, vice president and associate provost for research. “His experience as the associate director over the past five years will ensure a smooth transition and has shown that he has the collaborative style necessary to run a center like this and strengthen this area of research excellence at BU.”

Corley takes the helm of NEIDL at a critical time, as the worst Ebola virus outbreak in history continues to sweep across Central Africa.

“With Ebola, you can’t diagnose somebody until they’re already symptomatic,” he says. “Think how beneficial it would be if you had a tool that could diagnose people earlier. That alone would be a game changer. It’s imperative for us to learn to understand these emerging viruses and also to develop the diagnostics, the therapeutics, and the vaccines. That’s what the NEIDL is about.”

Construction of the NEIDL, on the Medical Campus in Boston’s South End, was completed in 2008 at a cost of $200 million, with the majority of the funding—$141 million—provided by the National Institutes of Health. The 192,000-square-foot laboratory is part of a national network of secure facilities dedicated to the development of diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments to combat emerging and reemerging infectious diseases.

The NEIDL has faced opposition from community activists expressing concern over safety and security, worries heightened by recent breaches at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where scientists were accidentally exposed to potentially viable anthrax bacteria.

“The recent events at the CDC have done nothing to dampen people’s concerns,” says Corley. “Those were horrible events—they were outrageous. The first thing we do when events like that happen is review all our processes and ask, could that have happened here? And if the answer is no, we make sure everyone understands why. And if we need to change something, we change it.”

Corley says he is committed to open communication with the public regarding the lab’s operations, safety protocols, and research goals.

“One of the things that former director Jack Murphy has been adamant about—and I have absolute, full intention to continue—is to be as open, direct, and transparent with the community as possible,” Corley says. “We want to address any questions that come our way and meet with anyone who wants to meet with us. We will continue our public outreach, because communication with the public is absolutely critical.”

The lab has been approved for some Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) research and is currently working to secure the necessary permits and approvals for BSL-4 research from the Boston Public Health Commission and the CDC. Corley’s goal is to begin BSL-4 research in the NEIDL in 2015. He also plans to begin a significant recruitment campaign across a number of different disciplines.

“We already have a small but outstanding group of scientists here,” he says.  “What we want to do is build critical mass in certain areas that will raise everybody’s game.”

One of his first tasks will be to identify the top three areas to focus recruiting efforts on. These areas are still under discussion, but zoonosis (the spread of infectious disease between species) and pathogenesis (the mechanism by which microbes cause disease) will certainly be top priorities at NEIDL, he says. Tuberculosis and other respiratory pathogens are also likely areas of focus.

“The advantage of having the NEIDL in an academic, research-intensive institution is that it gives us the ability to address broad questions about infectious diseases,” he says. “That means we are going to be recruiting people from a variety of disciplines: engineers, chemists, biologists, ecologists. Emerging infectious diseases are about humans encroaching on animal territories, and it’s about global warming and changes in habitats. We’re not just doing research on individual pathogens and how they function, but also trying to globally understand where these diseases come from and how we can model, predict, and prevent their spread to humans.”

Corley earned a BS in zoology and a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Duke University. He has been MED’s microbiology chair since 1994, a position he says taught him to work across disciplines and build broad collaborations between the Charles River and Medical Campuses.

“We want to be a premier emerging infectious diseases institute, not only in the United States, but in the world,” he says. “And I think we have the potential for doing exactly that.”

This BU Today article was written by Barbara Moran

 

 

Online Program for Medical Educators Allows Digital Display of Earned Competency

September 16th, 2014 in Uncategorized

CME-Accredited Course Advances Teaching Skills of Health Care Professionals


Medical educators have an opportunity to participate in a new, first-of-its kind online medical education badge program at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). The BUSM+ Medical Education Badge Program (BUSM+Program) allows access to online faculty development in medical education and allows course graduates to display and share earned digital competency badges on social media, CVs and portfolio websites. The program is considered to be a form of digital micro-credentialing.

“The BUSM+ Program takes the concept of digital badging and applies it for an audience of health care providers (practicing and retired physicians, fellows, residents, medical students and healthcare teams) who may have missed educational courses in their professional career and are now teaching, or those healthcare providers who want to enhance their existing teaching skills,” explained Gail March, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medical Sciences & Education as well as Director of Instructional Design and Faculty Development at BUSM who founded the program.

According to March, the BUSM+ digital badge program is unique in that it is the first one for medical education faculty development. “There are faculty development programs available, but they are often very expensive and demand the health care provider leave their practice to attend. BUSM+ is available as an open (no application process), online, asynchronous program available 24/7 for a low cost,” she added.

This program is designed for practicing and retired health care professionals who educate other professionals, students and patients. Enrollees in the initial BUSM+Program course will review the fundamentals of teaching and learning. Three additional offerings are planned to follow the Teaching and Learning course including Curriculum Design, Academic Leadership and Medical Education Research.

BUSM+Program was funded earlier this year by an inaugural seed grant for online innovation from the Digital Learning Initiative at Boston University.

Trio of Young Faculty Earn Peter Paul Professorships

September 16th, 2014 in Uncategorized

BU researchers study cancer, HIV, and an aging workforce

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Three young BU scholars have earned this year’s Peter Paul Professorships: Ernest Gonzales (from left), an SSW assistant professor of human behavior, Rachel Flynn, a MED assistant professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, and Jacob Bor, an SPH assistant professor of international health at the Center for Global Health & Development. Gonzales and Bor photos by Jackie Ricciardi. Flynn photo by Cydney Scott

Junior faculty arrive at Boston University full of ambition and with a head full of ideas, but they often have relatively little money for research. So being awarded a Peter Paul Career Development Professorship can feel like winning the lottery; winners receive an annual stipend of $40,000 for three years to pursue their research interests.

For some, it can even seem too good to be true.

“Once I received the email, I asked if they had the right Professor Gonzales,” says Ernest Gonzales, a School of Social Work assistant professor of human behavior. Gonzales, who had no idea that he had been nominated for the award, says the reply from the provost’s office was immediate: “Yes, Ernest, it’s you!”

Peter Paul Professorships were also awarded to Rachel Flynn, a School of Medicine assistant professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, and to Jacob Bor, a School of Public Health assistant professor of international health at the Center for Global Health & Development. University trustee Peter Paul (GSM’71) created the professorships named for him in 2006 with a $1.5 million gift, later increased to $2.5 million. Jean Morrison, BU provost, and President Robert A. Brown select recipients from faculty who are holding their first professorship, have arrived within the last two years, and have been recommended by deans and department chairs.

“It is a privilege to witness the development of talented young scholars into outstanding teachers and researchers,” says Morrison. “From the discovery of novel new cancer treatments and effective approaches to the HIV epidemic to improving conditions for an aging workforce, Professors Bor, Flynn, and Gonzales are fulfilling—and in many ways exceeding—the promise we saw in them when they joined the BU community. We are enormously proud of the important work they’re performing and excited to help advance their research careers.”

Gonzales, who earned a doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis, arrived at the University in July 2013. He is still thinking about how to use the award. He currently juggles several interdisciplinary research projects that focus on productive aging, structural discrimination in and outside of the workforce, and “unretirement”—the practice of retirees returning to work.

His initial findings suggest that the groups most vulnerable to ageism are workers under 30 and those 55 and older. Employees who fall within these ranges face social exclusion and questions about their professionalism or competence. Gonzales is also examining how early life experiences can predict difficult work trajectories later in life. Someone who enters the workforce at 17 with a high school diploma will likely work more physically demanding jobs—such as construction and manufacturing—that wear on their bodies and make it difficult to remain in the workforce long-term.

Gonzales also compares US practices to those in European countries, like Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government recently enacted a policy that allows people who have worked 45 years to retire with full benefits. He believes these individuals will relax, recuperate, and eventually return to the workforce—a theory he’s calling “Triple R.”

“I think we have a lot to learn from other nations,” says Gonzales, who would like to conduct cross-national research to see how this and other productive aging policies affect workers’ health and economic standing, with the eventual goal of proposing policy and legislation in the United States.

Flynn, who earned a doctoral degree in cancer biology from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has been at BU since June 2013. She studies the role telomeres, repetitive DNA sequences that cap the ends of chromosomes, play in cancer development. Each time a cell divides, Flynn says, it loses a chunk of telomere instead of more essential genes further upstream. When telomeres get too short, cells either stop growing or die.

“That is the aging process,” she says. But cancer cells have a way to “highjack this mechanism. When a telomere starts to get shorter, cancer outsmarts it” by reactivating the mechanism that keeps it growing forever.

Telomeres maintain their length using two pathways. Flynn’s lab studies the pathway used by osteosarcoma and glioblastoma—rare and lethal cancers of the bone and brain—and hopes to identify novel treatments that would target this highjacked pathway to better manage the cancers.

So far, Flynn has seen promising results. One compound she’s testing in vitro doesn’t just stop cancer cells from growing, but completely obliterates them—and with minimal effects to surrounding healthy cells. The next step is to test the compound in mouse models.

“If it works as well as it does in a dish, it’ll be amazing,” she says.

Flynn will use the award to hire lab personnel and to buy reagents. “It’s a tremendous opportunity to represent Peter Paul and have money to build my lab,” she says, “but the real goal is to raise the bar, to elevate cancer research at BU.”

Bor, who earned a doctorate at the Harvard University School of Public Health, came to BU in September 2013. He applies the tools of microeconomic models and natural experiments to the field of public health.

“Economics puts an emphasis on the individual; each person is making the best decision for themselves,” Bor says. “At least, that’s the theory.” He looks at decision-making and behavior in a larger economic context to determine what effects they have on health.

Across southern Africa, there’s an elevated HIV infection rate for young women. There are also “high levels of transactional sex,” Bor says. “Maybe if we can expand the choice set of young women so that they can make the best decisions for themselves, we can give them economic opportunities to avoid these relationships.”

In Botswana, he says, the government changed the structure of secondary school so that young women were encouraged to attend. The move resulted in a decrease in HIV infections within that population, he says.

With the award, Bor plans to recruit more doctoral students and research assistants to tackle the papers he’s been dreaming of writing, especially on questions related to South Africa’s HIV treatment program.

“The goal is to rigorously turn these out,” Bor says, “and the faster we do so, the better monies are allocated and the more lives can be saved.”

This BU Today article was written by Leslie Friday.

School of Public Health Has a New Dean

September 15th, 2014 in Uncategorized

Sandro Galea’s research has examined the consequences of mass trauma and conflict worldwide, including the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Sandro Galea

Sandro Galea’s research has examined the consequences of mass trauma and conflict worldwide, including the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Sandro Galea

Sandro Galea, an internationally respected physician and epidemiologist known for his research linking health to such social disadvantages as poverty and lack of education, has been appointed the new dean of the School of Public Health. Galea, currently the Anna Cheskis Gelman and Murray Charles Gelman Professor and chair of the department of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, will assume the BU post on January 1.

“We are delighted to have Professor Galea join us as leader of the Boston University School of Public Health,” says Jean Morrison, BU provost and chief academic officer. “He has an extraordinary track record for research and leadership, and he is well positioned to move the School of Public Health ahead in quality and stature. Given the breadth and depth of his research, we believe that he will be the kind of transformational leader who can help the school redefine its strategic emphasis.”

Galea says he is excited about joining the BU community. “This is a school of public health with a long history of excellence,” he says. “Its work and its reputation have soared in recent decades, and it will be a privilege for me to be part of the next phase of its evolution.”

Galea says he has long admired the faculty, the school, and the leadership of Robert Meenan (MED’72, GSM’89), who announced last year that he would step down after 21 years as dean.

“I am very pleased that Dr. Galea will join us as dean of the School of Public Health,” says President Robert A. Brown. “He brings exceptional experience, distinguished credentials, vision, and energy to this critical role. Public health, especially in urban environments here and around the globe, is vitally important, and our school can be a leader in education and research. I believe we are poised to reach new levels of excellence under Dr. Galea’s leadership.”

Galea, who in 2006 was named one of Time magazine’s epidemiology innovators, serves on the New York City Board of Health and is chair of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Community Services Board. His research has examined many aspects of public health, from the causes of brain disorders to the consequences of mass trauma and conflict worldwide, including the September 11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the lead author on a groundbreaking study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2011 that calculated the number of deaths caused by six social factors. That study, a meta-analysis of 47 earlier studies, concluded that each year 133,000 deaths could be attributed to poverty and 176,000 deaths could be attributed to racial segregation.

Galea has published more than 450 scientific journal articles, 50 book chapters and commentaries, and 9 books. His latest book, coauthored with Katherine Keyes, is the textbook Epidemiology Matters: A New Introduction to Methodological Foundations. He is a past president of the Society for Epidemiologic Research and an elected member of the American Epidemiological Society and of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Galea trained as a primary care physician at the University of Toronto and practiced in rural communities in Canada and Somalia. He then returned to academia and earned a master’s degree in public health at Harvard and a DrPH at Columbia.

Brian Jack, a School of Medicine professor and chair of family medicine, who headed the search committee, says Galea was chosen from a large pool of very qualified candidates. “Dr. Galea stood out for his forward-thinking approach to public health and his vast experience at Columbia leading a large department,” says Jack. “I believe he is a once-in-a-generation scholar, teacher, and administrator who will bring a wealth of experience in urban health.”

Karen Antman, dean of the School of Medicine and provost of the BU Medical Campus, says Galea is an outstanding choice.

“We are pleased to welcome such a highly respected epidemiologist as the new dean of SPH,” says Antman. “In addition to welcoming Dr. Galea, I’d like to thank Dr. Meenan for his vision and leadership in positioning SPH as a leader among schools of public health.”

“These are tremendously exciting times in public health,” Galea says. “A great school of public health has the responsibility to produce the scholarship that informs public health action and educates students and leadership for the coming decades. I am thrilled to be part of the community that embraces this responsibility.”

This BU Today story was written by

 

Events to Celebrate National Postdoc Appreciation Week Sept. 15-19

September 10th, 2014 in Uncategorized

Join in celebrating the contributions and achievements of BUMC postdocs at the fourth annual GMS celebration of National Postdoc Appreciation Week, September 15-19.

Monday, Sept. 15 – Friday, Sept. 19th Take Your Postdoc to Lunch

PIs will have a chance to appreciate their postdoc by taking them to lunch at following participating restaurants:  Roka, Estragon, El-Centro.  By showing your BU ID you will receive 10-20 percent  discount.   Email: Yolanta@bu.edu for more information.

PhD students and postdocs enjoying ice cream on Talbot Green.

PhD students and postdocs enjoying ice cream on Talbot Green.

Wednesday, Sept. 17 Ice Cream Social

1-3:30 p.m. Talbot Green (Rain location Hiebert Lounge, BUSM Instructional Building)

This event celebrates the contributions and achievements of BUMC postdocs and provides the opportunity to have fun and to meet other members of the BUMC community.
Open to: Postdocs, their Principal Investigators, PhD students and administrative staff.

Friday, Sept. 19 Interactive Workshop: Surviving Academia

Dr. Isabel Dominguez
12:30-1:30 p.m. BUSM Instructional Building, Room L-212 (Email: Yolanta@bu.edu to register)

Follow your passion, expand your comfort zone, find an advocate, jump at opportunities, hone transferable skills, build name recognition, create a support system, and hope for good luck if academia is where you would like to end up.  These tips and more will be offered by Isabel Dominguez at the interactive workshop. Open to: Postdocs and PhD students.  Lunch will be served.

PhD and Post Doc students are also encouraged to attend the following events:

Saturday, Sept. 20  MASS AWIS 10th Year Anniversary
11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.
Marriott Hotel, Kendall Square, Cambridge
For a decade, MASS AWIS has been providing support, career development and mentorship to many extraordinary women in the STEM fields in Massachusetts. A key event in our chapter’s history — a book club on the book Every Other Thursday — sparked the beginning of the ever-growing MASS AWIS Mentoring Circles Program. Our successful mentoring program has made a profound impact on the lives of our members. Thus, we are truly honored to have the author of the book, Dr. Ellen Daniell, as the keynote speaker at our 10th Anniversary Celebratory Luncheon. The program of the event will also include a video introduction from Massachusetts Senator, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and an Excellence in Mentoring Award presentation to Career Strategist, Sarah Cardozo Duncan. BU GMS is proud to support this event.

Document5Thursday Oct. 2-Friday, Oct. 3 The Future of Research: a Postdoc-Organized Symposium on the Sustainability of the Scientific Endeavor

Boston University, CGS Auditorium, 871 Commonwealth Ave., Boston

The landscape of scientific research and funding is in flux, affected by tight budgets, evolving models of both publishing and evaluation, and questions about training and workforce stability. As future leaders, junior scientists are uniquely poised to shape the culture and practice of science in response to these challenges.  A group of postdocs in the Boston area invested in improving the scientific endeavor. This group represents  eight institutions: Boston University, Brandeis University,  Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University. The event will include talks and panel discussions on issues affecting the future of science as well as breakout sessions expanding on many topics.

 

Sept. 11 BUMC Sustainability Festival, Talbot Green

September 9th, 2014 in Uncategorized

festival

Study Shows Complexities of Reducing HIV Rates in Russia

September 8th, 2014 in Uncategorized

Jeffrey Samet

Jeffrey Samet

Results of a new study conducted in St. Petersburg, Russia, show that decreasing HIV transmission among Russian HIV-infected drinkers will require creative and innovative approaches.

While new HIV infections globally have declined, HIV rates remain high in Russia. This is due in large part to injection drug use and spread via heterosexual sex transmission. Alcohol use also has been shown to be related to risky sexual behaviors and STIs.

Published online in Addiction, the study showed that a behavioral intervention did not lead to a reduction of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV risk behaviors in Russian HIV-infected heavy drinkers when compared to the control group. This study was led by researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), Boston Medical Center (BMC) and First St. Petersburg Pavlov State Medical University, Russia.

In this study, HIV’s Evolution in Russia – Mitigating Infection Transmission and Alcoholism in a Growing Epidemic (HERMITAGE), the researchers adapted a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-best evidence risk reduction intervention for a Russian clinical setting and assessed its ability to reduce STIs and HIV risk behaviors among 700 HIV-infected heavy drinkers. The intervention stressed disclosure of HIV serostatus and condom use in two individual sessions and three small group sessions. Participants had a laboratory test at a 12-month follow up appointment to determine if they had contracted STIs. They also answered questions about risky behaviors, including unprotected sex, drinking alcohol or injecting drugs.

At the 12-month follow-up assessment, STIs occurred in 20 subjects (8 percent) in the intervention group and 28 subjects (12 percent) in the control group. Both groups, however, reported having decreased their participation in risky behaviors.

“Addressing prevention of HIV transmission from HIV-infected Russian drinkers, a group at particularly high risk for disease transmission, requires creative approaches and aggressive uptake of antiretroviral therapy,” said Jeffrey Samet, MD, MA, MPH, professor of medicine at BUSM and chief of the section of general internal medicine at Boston Medical Center. “This study shows that we need to explore other options to help stem the growing epidemic.”

Funding for this study was provided in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism under grant award number R01AA016059.

Should Alcohol Consumption be Encouraged as a Part of a Healthy Lifestyle? A Debate.

September 4th, 2014 in Uncategorized

Bicknell2014Over the past three decades, more than 100 large, long-term prospective studies have shown positive cardiovascular effects from moderate alcohol consumption of one or two drinks per day. Health professionals are increasingly feeling pressure to promote limited alcohol consumption as part of a healthy diet. But do the significant potential risks associated with increased alcohol consumption – higher incidence of dependence, accidents, and overall mortality – outweigh the potential health benefits?

Learn more at http://www.bu.edu/sph/bicknell2014

Bicknell Lecture

  • Thursday, Sept. 18
  • 10-11:50 a.m.
  • Bakst Auditorium

 

BUMC Students to Enjoy Newly Renovated Space on 11th Floor Alumni Medical Library

August 7th, 2014 in Uncategorized

A recently completed renovation on the 11th floor of the Alumni Medical Library now provides a state-of-the-art, 220 seat testing center. The testing center is among the first of its kind, and will serve to both facilitate the administration of exams while at the same time enhancing the quality of study space for BUMC students.

Testing Center interior

Testing center interior

Renovations include a new ceiling with improved sound-proofing qualities, energy-efficient lighting, new carpeting and flooring, newly painted walls, new chairs and tables with power outlets at every seat, and club seating and cube tables in the hallway outside the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the testing center.  The heating and air conditioning system was upgraded, and a more powerful wireless system is provided throughout the testing center, as well as some wired network connections.

The testing center is equipped with a video monitoring system and an audio system for proctor announcements. During exams, proctors will have video monitoring controls to observe activity throughout the space via iPad. The testing center serves a dual-purpose as student study space when not reserved for exams.

Hall outside of Testing Center

Hall outside of testing center

Medical Library Computing & Systems offices are located on L-11, and staff will provide on-site technical support for student laptops and laptop loaners during exams.  A new state-of-the-art computer classroom with 26 PCs will also serve as a public computing lab when classes and exams are not scheduled.  A coffee/vending lounge includes additional club seating, group study tables, PCs, a scanner and print release station.  The elevator lobby was renovated and a new LCD monitor and signage have been installed throughout the floor.

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Battling Ebola: How Ebola Kills

August 5th, 2014 in Uncategorized

MED’s John Connor is devising diagnostics to spot Ebola and antivirals to treat the disease

On Saturday, Aug. 2, the first of two sickened American health care workers was flown from Africa to a special containment unit at Emory University. Despite the risk of infection, medical personnel continue to travel to West Africa to help bring under control the worst Ebola outbreak on record, which has killed more than 900 people to date. The World Health Organization plans to spend $100 million to fight the outbreak, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will send 50 more aid workers.

In this Special Report, BU Today talks to Boston University researchers in several fields about why medical personnel confront the risks; the ethical and political dilemmas presented by the outbreak; how the virus kills; efforts to design effective therapies; and other aspects of this unprecedented outbreak of Ebola.

John Connor, a researcher at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), says the immune system’s response to Ebola is “totally out of whack” compared with its responses to other viruses. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

John Connor, a researcher at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), says the immune system’s response to Ebola is “totally out of whack” compared with its responses to other viruses. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

The Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia has now infected more than 1,600 people, according to the World Health Organization. To learn about how the virus kills and efforts being made at BU to devise diagnostics and therapies to treat it, BU Today spoke with John Connor, associate professor of microbiology at the School of Medicine and a researcher at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL). Connor, whose research is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, studies the tricks that viruses use to dominate their cellular hosts. He has been working collaboratively with researchers at BU and at other research institutions, with a particular focus on the Ebola virus.

BU Today: What aspect of the Ebola virus is the focus of your work?

Connor: My lab is interested in several different approaches to try to understand and stop diseases caused by viruses like Ebola. This includes the development of antivirals, vaccines, and point-of-care diagnostics, in collaboration with the Photonics Center and the lab of Selim Unlu, College of Engineering associate dean for research and graduate programs in the department of computer and electrical engineering.

Another thing we are looking at is what goes wrong with the immune response during viral infection. Our bodies are so good at responding to so many diseases, and in most cases we get sick for a couple of days and then we get better. Our response to Ebola is totally out of whack. The immune system appears to deliver a much more aggressive response than is necessary, one that causes a lot of damage to the body. That overreaction is a significant part of what makes infection with this virus so deadly.

What kind of damage is done by the overreaction?

The response is so strong that it triggers other pathologies. This can include diffuse intravascular coagulopathy, which is why the virus is often called a hemorrhagic fever virus. Normally, coagulation is constantly serving your body, so if you get cut you get a nice blood clot that seals you up. It’s a great way to keep your blood from leaking out. In the case of Ebola, you get clotting in inappropriate places, such as organs like the liver. The problem is, you have a finite number of clotting factors in your body, and they get depleted from the inappropriate clotting. When that happens, you have a hole in your body that needs clotting but won’t stop bleeding. All the small things that happen on a daily basis that are normally taken care of by coagulation are not working.

Do other viruses cause the same coagulation problems?

Ebola is one of the viruses that are most associated with that type of response. The Marburg virus, a cousin of Ebola, can also cause that response, and Lassa fever viruses can as well. Dengue virus can also cause a hemorrhagic disease, in rare cases.

Does every victim of Ebola hemorrhage?

No, but it happens a lot of the time, whereas in other viral infection such as the common flu, it does not happen.

Why is it that some people infected by Ebola get much sicker than others?

That’s one of the things we are trying to learn, but it’s hard. One of the problems of studying a virus like this is that you don’t have large pools of people to work with. Outbreaks of Ebola are sporadic. If you are studying HIV/AIDS, the prevalence of the disease means that you can readily identify 10,000 people. Ebola outbreaks are not predictable and, thankfully, most previous outbreaks were small. This makes other approaches to understanding the course of disease important to try. We are now collaborating with people at other labs who are using animal models of the disease.

What are you learning about how the virus works?

One of the things we’ve been surprised by is how early the immune system response begins and how robust it is. When we compare this response to other viruses, it appears that the response to Ebola is much stronger than to other types of disease. Also, it appears that specific types of responses are associated with survival from the disease. We are investigating whether this early immune response can be used to develop a diagnostic for early disease. Can we look very early, even before symptoms show up, and identify an immune system response to an Ebola infection?

How is the immune response of survivors different from that of people who die?

We have learned that it’s not just the intensity of the response. It also appears to be the type of responses that develop. One of the things we see in animals that succumb to the disease is one type of immune cell—a type of neutrophil—accumulates, whereas in animals that survive, that immune cell is not as abundant.

Are there any therapies that are effective?

There are no Food and Drug Administration–approved therapies. People are beginning to develop some therapies, and information from those studies says that the earlier an individual is treated, the better their survival.

If we can find ways to diagnose infection early, that will directly help effective therapy. And with early diagnosis, if you identify one patient that is symptomatic, suggesting that their course of disease is far along, early tests like the one we are developing will allow rapid testing of contacts of that first patient and early treatment of those infected with the disease.

We are really trying to understand what this very overactive immune response is and how we can start damping it down. Our lab is also developing antivirals that work against Ebola, and we are working on diagnostics that will be at the point of care. We have been focusing on developing a diagnostic for Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa, where point of care is a high priority. We are doing this with the Unlu laboratory at BU, with collaboration from BD Technologies and a spin-out company, NeXGen Arrays, which was started by BU alums and is primarily interested in developing these assays. We are also developing second-generation vaccine viruses in collaboration with Tom Geisbert, former associate director of the NEIDL. The collaboration started when Tom was at BU and has continued since his move to the University of Texas Medical Branch.

This BU Today story was written by Art Jahnke. He can be reached at jahnke@bu.edu.

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