In a new study, University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers have had promising results with a new treatment for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Published Feb. 17 in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the study found a new treatment that protected mice from MERS infection.
The treatment – an antibody that blocks the MERS virus – was produced by cows that had been genetically modified to mimic certain aspects of the human immune system. These cows were given a new MERS vaccine that led to production of anti-MERS antibodies in large quantities. These antibodies were then purified to produce the therapeutic that was tested in the MERS-infected mice.
Last year, a South Korean epidemic of MERS killed more than 30 people. Overall, MERS has killed nearly 600 people since it was first discovered four years ago in Saudi Arabia. The South Korean outbreak, which began when a traveler returned from Saudi Arabia, infected hundreds of people there.
The research is a partnership among the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM), SAB Biotherapeutics (SAB), Novavax, and the Naval Medical Research Center. The researchers tested the treatment for MERS, a disease that can cause severe respiratory symptoms and has a death rate of 40 percent.
“These results are very promising,” says one of the lead researchers on the study, Matthew B. Frieman, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UM SOM. “This is important not only because it gives us a potential way to attack MERS, but also because it provides evidence that using these transgenic cows can rapidly produce therapeutics.”
SAB, a biopharmaceutical company based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, provided the genetically modified cows, a technology that it invented. Novavax, a vaccine biotech company based in Gaithersburg, provided the vaccine that triggered the antibody production in the cows.
“Through this collaborative team, we’ve brought together the top talent of the scientific community, global health experts, and novel technologies to demonstrate the efficacy, safety, and responsiveness of our human antibody therapeutic,” said Eddie Sullivan, PhD, president and CEO of SAB. “As we complete successful studies targeting various diseases, we’re realizing the potential broad application and significance of our platform in addressing these global health threats.”
The next step, which will occur in the next three to six months, will be a human clinical trial to test the safety of the therapeutic. If that works, a Phase 2 trial will follow, to test whether it is effective for use in humans, in emergency situations.
MERS was first discovered in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. It appears that the disease spread to humans from camels, who may themselves have been infected by bats. Research has shown that it is similar to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in 2003 and resulted in more than 8,000 infections, killing 10 percent of those infected. Both are caused by Coronaviruses, both cause serious respiratory problems, and both are often fatal.
“Professor Frieman’s work is a fantastic example of how the school is partnering with private industry to break new ground fighting disease,” said UM SOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who is also the vice president for medical affairs, University of Maryland, Baltimore and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor. “This work provides a great model for how we can respond rapidly to emerging diseases that threaten health around the world.”