The antibodies the team is developing will also not only be useful in fighting the diseases of the Ebola virus and smallpox, but in treating the side effects of vaccinations.It is a peculiar research triangle – the Israeli city of Beersheva, New York City and the African nation of Uganda. But with this international collaboration, Dr. Leslie Lobel of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev hopes the key will be found to finding an answer to controlling deadly infectious diseases like smallpox and the Ebola virus using human antibodies, as well as treating the side effects of vaccines against these diseases.
Lobel has an ally in this quest, the U.S. company Acceptys, Inc. with whom he has entered into a collaborative agreement. Acceptys Inc. is a biotech company that is focused on the development of human antibody therapies in cancer and infectious diseases. Acceptys’ proprietary cell lines for human monoclonal antibody production are being employed for this project, as they are known for producing sustained levels of antibody over prolonged periods.
A member of the BGU Department of Virology, the American-born Lobel has also secured substantial funding for his research from B.G. Negev Technologies for the development of human immunotherapy for smallpox.
Lobel was trained as a neurologist in the MD/PhD program Colombia University. After post-doctoral work at MIT in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Horowitz, who went on to win a Nobel Prize, Lobel returned to Columbia and the area of research he felt passionate about: using human monochromal antibodies to protect against and fight infectious disease. According to Lobel, this process seems to be a quicker and more promising route than drug development.
“This direction is great for fighting bioterrorism. You can’t vaccinate people for all potential threats. So the idea of having an arsenal of human antibodies, that could protect a population before and after an outbreak seems to me to be an idea with a lot of potential. The truth is that before September 11, people looked at me like I was nuts when I spoke about this idea. After September 11 – it was a different story,” he told ISRAEL21c.
As he was developing this research, Lobel also fulfilled a longtime dream of moving to Israel, where he landed a position on the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He continued a long-distance collaboration with his Columbia colleague Dr. Ilya Trakht and his team.
“We divided the labor with the under I would work on the more deadly biodefense-oriented work, and at Columbia, they would be involved in things more clinically relevant, other more common viral diseases,” said Lobel.
The threat of an Iraqi biological attack last winter, and the preparation for such possible bio-warfare meant that Israel vaccinated health care workers for smallpox. This worked in Lobel’s favor – as blood samples from vaccinated individuals were necessary for his research.
The last case of smallpox in the United States was reported in 1949, and routine vaccination of children in the United States ended in 1971. The last case of smallpox in the world was in Ethiopia in 1976.
The antibodies he is developing will also not only be useful in fighting the disease of smallpox, but in treating the side effects of vaccinations. Initially, Lobel’s research will focus on producing a cocktail of fully human neutralizing monoclonal antibodies from the lymphocytes of vaccinated volunteers. This will be used for immunotherapy of the complications following vaccination against smallpox and in the event of a renewed outbreak.
“We are working very hard on this right now, the threat isn’t going away in the future,” he said.
Since the project with smallpox got underway, Lobel knew he wanted to conduct parallel research involving another threatening disease. “I picked Ebola because it’s a deadly virus and there is no way of protecting anybody from it right now.”
Through contacts in the United States, he found Dr. Robert Downing, of the Uganda Virology Research Institute. Downing, with funding help from Israel and the United Sates, is isolating peripheral blood lymphocytes from survivors of the Ebola outbreak in Gulu, Uganda.
These samples will be used for the production of fully human monoclonal antibodies to Ebola virus antigens in the Lobel’s laboratory in Beersheva.
Outbreaks have occurred in Sudan, Zaire Côte d’Ivoire, and the United States of America. First identified in a western equatorial province of Sudan and in a nearby region of Zaire in 1976. The most recent outbreak was in rural Gabon in February 1996.
Lobel’s work is taking places, he says, with the enthusiastic support of BGU’s Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Dr. Rivka Carmi. The two doctors dream of someday establishing a full-fledged Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at BGU.
“It’s clear, after 9/11 we realized that we had become complacent to viral diseases over the past 20-30 years, but the threat of bioterrorism and warfare is still real,” says Lobel. “And at the same time I think diseases such as Ebola humble us and make us realize these things can still also emerge out of nature.”
Now settled with his family in the Beersheva suburb of Omer, Lobel says that there is nowhere he would rather be pursuing his work.
“Ben-Gurion is a cutting-edge institution. Working here is an amazing opportunity. I’d rather be here than a place like Harvard or Columbia. Larger institutions are both good and bad. They have big names, but because they are such big institutions, there is an inertia problem. To get a project like mine moving at Columbia would be almost impossible and would take a very long time to work through the red tape. Here, new ideas are accepted and embraced quickly. I find work here more cutting-edge and energetic than Columbia, and my colleagues there are amazed that I could get a project like this moving in a month or two. I think this is the greatest place on earth. I really love this place.”