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Biotech Licenses Cell Research for Ebola Treatments

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

8 January 2015. H&P Labs, a biotechnology company in Montreal, is licensing research on cell proteins at a lab affliated with Harvard University to develop into treatments for Ebola. Financial details of the agreement were not disclosed.

The current Ebola outbreak in Africa that began in March 2014 totals 20,747 cases resulting in 8,235 deaths, mainly in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, as of 7 January 2015. Humans do not become infectious with Ebola until they develop symptoms, usually starting with fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. Symptoms can progress to vomiting, diarrhea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases both internal and external bleeding. The fatality rate in the current outbreak is about 50 percent, although in previous outbreaks, fatalities ranged from 25 to 90 percent.

H&P Labs develops antiviral drugs through early clinical stages for public health and biodefense, which are then spun-off for further clinical testing and commercialization. In August 2014, the company licensed from Defyrus Inc., a biotech company in Toronto, a drug candidate for a broad range of viral diseases, including Ebola, that delivers a therapeutic gene as a nasal spray into the lungs. This drug, code-named DEF201, is being tested as a single therapy and combined with other treatments.

The deal provides H&P Labs with access to research on cell proteins in the lab of James Cunningham at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Cunningham, also a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School, studies the role of the Niemann–Pick C1 protein in facilitating viral infections, including Ebola. In 2011, he and colleagues published a study identifying compounds that blocked the actions of Niemann–Pick C1 proteins in binding to Ebola virus proteins, thus inhibiting Ebola infections.

Cunningham continued this research under the auspices of New England Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, located at Harvard Medical School. That work ended in 2014, but is continued at a Center of Excellence in Translational Research, also at Harvard. One of that center’s projects is to develop small molecule inhibitors of enveloped viruses, of which Ebola is one.

The technology licensed in the agreement covers two types of compounds that prevent the entry of Ebola virus particles into cells. One type inhibits activity of Niemann–Pick C1 proteins that bind to invading Ebola virus particles. The second type of compound blocks the delivery of Ebola particles into cell compartments containing the Niemann–Pick C1 proteins.

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