Southwest Research Institute awarded $3.4M for Ebola drug testing

2 available medicines to be tested as combination drug therapy

SAN ANTONIO – Southwest Research Institute has been awarded a $3.4 million contract to test medications for use against the Ebola virus, officials said Wednesday.

SwRI will collaborate with the Texas Biomedical Research Institute to combine two available medications and test the combination drug therapy against the virus.

There are no proven treatments for the Ebola virus. Outbreaks can cause fatalities in as many as 90 percent of the cases.

"We are at the forefront of rapidly developing and fielding new therapeutics," said Dr. Joe McDonough, director of the pharmaceuticals and bioengineering department at SwRI. "We have a unique approach to repurpose two existing drugs that we believe will more effectively work together to target emerging biothreats like Ebola."

Dr. Robert Davey, scientist and chair of the department of virology and immunology at Texas Biomed, said the research teams plan to create a more easily absorbed formulation of cepharanthine, or CEPN, a Japanese drug that's been safely used by humans for more than 40 years to treat a wide range of illnesses.

"Our lab recently discovered that cepharanthine on its own stops the Ebola virus from replicating, but required a high dosage," Davey said.

He said the new formulation of CEPN will be combined with chloroquine, a drug used to treat malaria.

"After reading that chloroquine combined with cepharanthine had a synergistic effect in treating malaria, we put two and two together and wanted to test the idea that this combination could create a powerful Ebola virus inhibitor cocktail," Davey said. "Our collaboration with McDonough's group at SwRI and funding from DTRA gives us the means to test the idea."

Texas Biomed will conduct the testing in its state-of-the-art Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory.

The contract from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is for one year, with an option for two more years, officials said.

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