NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) - The Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research said yesterday that it the Department of Homeland Security has awarded it a $1.5 million contract to study strains of Marburg virus, a highly contagious pathogen that causes hemorrhagic fever.
SFBR, located in San Antonio, Texas, will harness genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics methods and tools to study how the virus causes disease. SFBR researchers plan to study the progression of infection and the effect of the virus on the host immune system, and will identify viral genetic factors responsible for disease.
The hope is that the research will lead to treatments or vaccines for Marburg hemorrhagic fever that would be used under Project Bioshield, a Department of Health and Human Services initiative aimed at developing countermeasures against selected biological agents.
Subcontractors for the Marburg virus project, which is funded through DHS’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, include Eastern Virginia Medical School, which will perform proteomic analysis on protein samples; and bioinformatics firm Incogen, which will customize a software system for SFBR to use for data analysis.
"Right now, very little is known about how the Marburg virus works, what causes its pathogenicity, or what accounts for the difference in severity among the seven different variants of the virus," said lead investigator and chair of SFBR’s virology and immunology department, Jean Patterson, in a statement.
Some strains of the virus are highly lethal. For example, the Angola strain has a 90 percent mortality rate and killed 227 in Angola in 2004 and 2005, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other variants of the virus have a 40 percent to 60 percent mortality rate.
"There is little difference in the proteins among these variants, so the reason for the difference in their severity in unclear,” said Ricardo Carrion, an assistant scientist at SFBR and a co-investigator on the contract. “That is one of the things we'll try to find out as part of our research."
Marburg virus was first diagnosed in 1967, when it broke out in the German city of that name among laboratory researchers who were studying green monkeys from Uganda that were carrying the virus. Others soon contracted the disease in Frankfurt, Germany, and Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Thirty-two of those workers became infected and seven died, according to the CDC.
The lethality and contagiousness of Marburg virus, coupled with the lack of a vaccine or cure, have raised concerns that the virus could be used as a bioweapon.