Tufts professor awarded $1.5 million grant to study Ebola

Dr. James Munro, an assistant professor of molecular biology at the Tufts Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, was recently granted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s New Innovator Award of $1.5 million to study the transmission of Ebola.

According to Dr. Ravi Basavappa, a program leader in the NIH Common Fund, the New Innovator Award is presented annually to approximately 30 to 50 early-career scientists every year.

“[Grant recipients] should have already demonstrated a track record of being unusually creative, of being able to think outside the box,” Basavappa said.

Dr. John Leong, professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology, said that Munro’s postdoctoral work with the HIV virus, as well as his background as a biophysicist, qualified him for the competitive award. Two other award recipients work in the department, but Munro is the only faculty member in the department to study Ebola, according to Leong.

“[Munro’s work] is reflective, at Tufts, of trying to stretch disciplinary boundaries and utilize the full breadth of modern technology to attack problems in infectious disease,” Leong said.

Munro’s research of Ebola follows increased public awareness of the virus after a recent outbreak in West Africa that began in March 2014, and killed approximately 11,312 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and other West African countries, according to a BBC News article. There is currently no known cure for Ebola, but there are a number of vaccines under development.

Munro said he intends to use the grant to study how Ebola uses glycoproteins, which reside on the surface of the virus, to enter other cells. Using a process called pseudotyping, he will use the Vesicular Stomatitis Virus (VSV) to study Ebola’s glycoprotein without actually having to use the Ebola virus in his research.

“In this case, what we’re doing is taking the envelope glycoprotein from Ebola…and expressing that on the surface of a completely unrelated viral particle — one that is not a human pathogen at all,” Munro said. “It’s a very common strategy for studying Ebola entry.”

Before studying Ebola, Munro researched the HIV virus’ entry into cells using a similar method, since HIV has a similar glycoprotein. He said researching glycoproteins could generate insights on a range of other viruses, including the flu and the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“The fact that we’ve gone from [studying] HIV now to Ebola is not really [an] accident,” Munro said. “The broader goal beyond just Ebola research is to generate a toolbox of methods that can be used to study the entry of essentially any virus.”

Basavappa said that understanding how glycoproteins on the surface move could really aid in understanding the function of these proteins.

“Although good progress is being made on the development of vaccines against Ebola, there’s still a place for doing fundamental research that can help us understand better how the surface proteins change…their conformation,” Basavappa said.

Munro’s research will explore why the gene that controls Ebola’s glycoprotein mutated more frequently than any other part of the virus’ genome during the West Africa outbreak. He attributed this to glycoproteins’ presence on the surface of the Ebola virus, which makes it a target for an immune response and thus more likely to evolve. Munro, however, hopes that his research will help discover cures to Ebola, even if the virus has mutations.

“The approach that we’re taking should be broadly applicable to any Ebola strain,” he said. “And in fact one of the questions we’re interested in asking and answering is how that mutation changes the structure of the glycoprotein, because thus far there has really been no investigation of that at all.”

Jeffrey Griffiths, a professor of public health and community medicine, said the grant Munro received shows the quality of his department’s work.

“I’m really delighted to see that, even though Tufts is not a large place, we’re still on the cutting edge,” Griffiths said. “I think it speaks to the high quality of the Department of Molecular Biology and Microbiology that this kind of grant was received.”

According to Griffiths, the spread of Ebola in West Africa is due partially to the region’s underdeveloped health and sanitary infrastructure. However, Griffiths said poverty is only part of the puzzle and that infectious diseases can be overcome in impoverished areas.

“Smallpox was eradicated from the world during a period of time when the infrastructure was even worse than it is now,” he said. “I wouldn’t see [roadblocks created by poverty] as a deal breaker. I would see that as a challenge.”

Griffiths said that, throughout the history of Ebola outbreaks in Uganda, healthcare workers have been able to quickly stop outbreaks from becoming epidemics through quarantine.

“You don’t have to be a rich country to be able to do this; you can be a relatively poor country and still do a pretty good job at…isolation,” he said.

Griffiths said it is concerning that politicians’ interest in Ebola will decline now that the West Africa epidemic has ended, but he is confident that the NIH and other health agencies will still focus on preventing another large-scale outbreak.

Munro said he remains optimistic that Ebola research will continue to be a priority.

“While this particular outbreak [in West Africa] does seem to have waned, there’s no doubt that there is an ongoing threat of future epidemics,” he said. “And now that we’ve seen how widespread this virus can be, I think we’ll see future emphasis on Ebola research.”