Research Will Target Ebola and Other Deadly Viruses

Release Date: November 9, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Researchers at CUBRC and the University at Buffalo's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences are developing radically new drugs designed to cure viruses ranging from the deadly Ebola virus to the common cold, thanks to a major $8.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Funded through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the grant was announced by Tom McMahon, CUBRC president and chief executive officer; Bruce Holm, senior vice provost and executive director of the Center of Excellence; and U.S. Rep. Thomas Reynolds.

It will support the work of researchers at CUBRC, the Center of Excellence and Prosetta Corp., a biotechnology firm based in San Francisco, in developing new drugs to treat viral hemorrhagic fever diseases, including Ebola, Rift Valley Fever Virus and Lassa Fever Virus, that are of major importance to biodefense, using techniques that ultimately will be useful in combating all types of viruses.

More than 400 applicants from top medical schools around the U.S. were competing for the grant.

"The CUBRC-UB team was in direct competition with most of the finest academic research institutions and commercial biotechnology companies in the world and clearly demonstrated that it is not only on the playing field, but is playing to win," said Holm.

"I don't think there is any better validation of the strategy we've been pursuing methodically over the past five years to build a life sciences prominence in Western New York than this competitive win."

The focus of the grant is to develop a new class of broad-spectrum, anti-viral drugs and to create a much faster, more efficient, drug-development path for anti-viral therapeutics, which typically have taken years, even decades, to develop.

"For years, we at UB have been exploring the idea that viruses function like a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle," said Iain Hay, Grant T. Fisher Professor of Microbiology in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a member of the Infectious Diseases research group at the Center of Excellence. "If something prevents all the pieces of the virus from assembling together correctly, then the virus will not be infectious."

According to Hay, that idea also is the focus of Prosetta Corp., which has been working with researchers at CUBRC.

"It's quite a feather in our cap that Prosetta, based in close proximity to some of the nation's top medical schools, chose to work with CUBRC and UB on this grant," Hay said.

McMahon added: "The extraordinary strength of CUBRC's proposal was derived from the unique combination of CUBRC's leadership position in the biodefense market, the revolutionary science offered by Prosetta Corp. and the powerful, both intellectual and infrastructure, capital within the bioinformatics center and its partners."

Prosetta's focus is to identify the factors inside cells that can trip up the virus-assembly process and thus render lethal viruses inactive.

"The reason why this is so revolutionary is that this method of anti-viral therapy is not specific to any single virus," said Hay. "It's applicable across the board, so this technology should help us in principle deal with viruses that are lethal, as well as those that cause the common cold."

Hay pointed out that his research group at UB specializes in seeking out new and lethal viruses overseas and studying tiny, noninfectious particles of them on campus to determine how they work. Later steps of the research process that involve infectious viruses are restricted to government-certified laboratories at places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and others.

Christopher Davis, chief scientist and director of biomedical research for CUBRC, will serve as program director of the grant.

Other key researchers on the grant include Troy Wood, professor of chemistry and a member of the center's Drug Discovery group, who will work on developing small molecules to form the basis of potential anti-viral therapies.

By the end of the two-year grant, Hay said, the consortium expects to have identified molecules that interfere with the viral-assembly process in vitro; after that, more funding will be secured to conduct clinical research.

"The full intention is to pursue the collaboration between CUBRC, UB and the Center of Excellence, and Prosetta to develop products that can be made here in Buffalo," said Hay.

CUBRC is an independent, not-for-profit company headquartered in the Center of Excellence. It originally was formed by UB and the former Calspan Corp. to generate technological and economic growth in Western New York by bringing together scientists and engineers from its own staff, academia and industry to form multidisciplinary teams. In conjunction with the Center of Excellence, CUBRC now executes a variety of research-and-development programs for the defense, intelligence, homeland security and medical research communities.

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