Pentagon Eyes Search for Virus-Fighting Protein ‘Cocktails’

Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
Oct. 4, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The U.S. De­fense De­part­ment is weigh­ing a new search for im­mune-pro­tein “cock­tails” it hopes will pro­tect hu­mans against Ebola and oth­er deadly, weapon-us­able vir­uses.

The Pentagon two weeks ago in­vited sci­ent­ists to sub­mit re­search pro­pos­als for design­ing “mono­clonal an­ti­bod­ies” that could pro­tect against Ebola and Mar­burg, as well as “al­phavir­uses” such as Venezuelan equine en­ceph­al­it­is.

Pentagon plan­ners have been turn­ing to an­ti­bod­ies as a pos­sible tool be­cause “no easy and quick fix” for such agents has emerged from ef­forts to de­vel­op vac­cines or tra­di­tion­al an­ti­vir­al treat­ments, said Gigi Gron­vall, a seni­or as­so­ci­ate with the Cen­ter for Health Se­cur­ity at the Uni­versity of Pitt­s­burgh Med­ic­al Cen­ter.

The early-stage re­search now un­der con­sid­er­a­tion ideally would lead to single-shot treat­ments cap­able of guard­ing troops for months from mul­tiple vir­us types, the De­fense Threat Re­duc­tion Agency said in a Sept. 18 so­li­cit­a­tion. DTRA of­fi­cials wel­comed re­search­ers to pro­pose “‘cock­tails’ that may en­able cross-pro­tec­tion against mul­tiple spe­cies of vir­us.”

The em­phas­is on “cock­tails” makes the latest DTRA pro­pos­al par­tic­u­larly not­able, be­cause sev­er­al stud­ies sug­gest that mixes of sev­er­al an­ti­bod­ies can be par­tic­u­larly ef­fect­ive in fight­ing patho­gens, Gron­vall told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire in a tele­phone in­ter­view. An­ti­bod­ies hit their tar­gets with such spe­cificity that a treat­ment with mul­tiple im­mune pro­teins can help ac­count for slight vari­ations between in­vad­ing mi­crobes.

Mono­clonal an­ti­bod­ies have been in use since the 1980s to treat can­cer and im­mune-linked ail­ments such as rheum­at­oid arth­rit­is, but their use against in­fec­tious patho­gens has lagged, ac­cord­ing to a DTRA-sponsored re­port co-au­thored by Gron­vall on the tech­no­logy’s biode­fense po­ten­tial.

The United States last year li­censed the first in­hal­a­tion an­thrax treat­ment to use the tech­no­logy, which in­volves cre­at­ing massive quant­it­ies of a single im­mune “an­ti­body.” The hu­man body nat­ur­ally gen­er­ates such pro­teins, each of which is de­signed to mark a spe­cif­ic patho­gen or tox­in for elim­in­a­tion by oth­er im­mune-sys­tem com­pon­ents.

One an­ti­body cock­tail grown in mod­i­fied to­bacco plants showed prom­ising po­tency against Ebola in­fec­tions spe­cific­ally, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in Au­gust.

“There have been a lot of changes in the way that mono­clonal an­ti­body tech­no­lo­gies have evolved over the last sev­er­al years, and it makes mono­clonal an­ti­bod­ies a very nice piece of their ap­proach to med­ic­al coun­ter­meas­ures,”  Gron­vall said.

The latest DTRA Broad Agency An­nounce­ment seeks pro­pos­als for stud­ies no longer than one year, with a cost no great­er than $500 mil­lion. The fil­ing dead­line is Oct. 16.

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