July 2017


Tulane University awarded $12 million to create Lassa vaccine and treatment


Keith Brannon

Garry Robinson

Tulane University School of Medicine virologists Robert Garry (left) and Dr. James Robinson are part of a team of collaborators who've been researching Lassa fever in West Africa for more than 14 years. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)


The National Institutes of Health has awarded Tulane University more than $12 million to test a promising drug treatment against Lassa fever and develop a vaccine against the deadly disease endemic in parts of West Africa.
The NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded virologist Robert Garry two, five-year grants for the preclinical research — $5.72 million to evaluate a potent Lassa fever antibody drug cocktail and $6.32 million to design a vaccine based on a recently discovered key antibody target on the surface of the virus.

Lassa fever is a severe and often fatal hemorrhagic illness caused by Lassa virus. There is no vaccine against the virus, which infects more than 300,000 annually.  

“These two projects complement each other. In West Africa, we need a drug to treat acutely infected patients as well as a preventative measure to stop it,” says Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane University School of Medicine. “Vaccine initiatives in rural Africa are difficult so you are never going to be able to vaccinate everyone. You need to be able to treat people when they get sick.”

The vaccine will test antibodies that target a recently identified viral surface structure, called the surface glycoprotein, which can block it from infecting a host cell. The vaccine will also incorporate similar glycoproteins against Ebola that are already being tested in clinical trials.

“Ebola is likely to come back, and Lassa isn’t going away so you have to protect against both,” Garry says. “We think we can do it with one shot.”

The other project will test the three most potent Lassa antibodies to see which formulation will work best in a drug therapy. Together, the three have been highly protective in early animal studies, Garry says. Collaborators on the grants include Tulane virologist Dr. James Robinson and scientists at Zalgen Labs, The Scripps Research Institute, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston and the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

Tulane researchers have been studying Lassa in West Africa with a team of collaborators for more than 14 years. They have developed a rapid test to diagnose the disease in the field and spent years collecting blood samples from survivors to identify critical antibodies against the virus. 

June 2017

Research team unravels elusive structure of Lassa virus, revealing vaccine target


By Keith Brannon
June 1, 2017

Drs. Garry and Robinson

Tulane University School of Medicine virologists and study co-authors Robert Garry (left) and Dr. James Robinson are part of a Lassa virus research team whose discovery made the cover of the latest issue of Science, a leading research journal. Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano.


A team of scientists, including virologists from Tulane University, have for the first time mapped the molecular structure of an elusive surface protein on the Lassa virus that allows the pathogen to infect human cells. The research identifies a key antibody target that could serve as a blueprint for developing a vaccine or antibody-based drug against deadly Lassa fever.

The breakthrough, more than a decade in the making, is featured on the cover of the June 2 issue of Science. It is the first time researchers have exposed a key portion of the viral surface structure, called the surface glycoprotein, for any member of the arenavirus family, which includes several viruses that cause deadly hemorrhagic fevers worldwide. 

The research was led by Kathryn Hastie and Erica Ollmann Saphire of the Scripps Research Institute. Tulane University School of Medicine virologists and study co-authors Robert Garry and Dr. James Robinson have been researching Lassa fever with partners in West Africa for more than a decade. Tulane scientists collected blood samples from survivors in Sierra Leone and sent them back to New Orleans, where Robinson’s lab worked to identify and clone more than 100 different antibodies used in the research.

“The publication of this paper, long in the making, is a tribute to the persistence and perseverance of a wonderful team of collaborating investigators.”

Dr. James Robinson

“The antibodies were a very important tool for trying to understand the structure of the glycoprotein,” said Robinson, professor of pediatrics. “It was key to understanding where the antibodies were binding and the mechanisms for neutralization of the virus.”

Scientists hadn’t been able to successfully solve the structure of Lassa virus because the glycoprotein falls apart under conditions normally used to create a crystal model. Scripps researchers were able to engineer a more stable version of the glycoprotein. This was used to identify a key binding site for antibodies from survivors’ blood samples. 

Researchers detailed how subunits of the glycoprotein work together to infect a cell. They also discovered how three pairs of proteins, called a trimer, come together to form a tripod-like structure. Roughly 90 percent of the effective antibodies target that trimer nexus, locking the subunits together to prevent them from enabling Lassa virus to enter a host cell.

Further research will test potential vaccines that induce antibodies that target the glycoprotein trimer, said Garry, professor of microbiology and immunology.

“The trimer structure of the Lassa virus glycoprotein will have a lasting impact on the field of viral hemorrhagic fever research,” Garry said. “It's gratifying to see a truly collaborative study come to fruition after such a long effort. It would not have been possible without the great teamwork." 

The research team also included investigators from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Zalgen Labs.


April 2017

Genetic study finds 'perfect storm' behind deadliest Ebola outbreak

April 12, 2017 3:15 PM


By Keith Brannon

Bob Garry

Tulane and the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium followed the first Ebola patients admitted to the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone at the beginning of the outbreak in 2014.


A combination of densely populated cities and porous borders between neighboring countries helped ignite the historically deadly West African Ebola outbreak that killed more than 11,200 people, according to a comprehensive genetic study of the virus published in Nature.

Tulane University infectious disease researchers Dr. John Schieffelin and Robert Garry are co-authors of the study which analyzed more than 1,600 Ebola virus genomes to reconstruct the dispersal, proliferation and decline of the virus throughout the region. The study found that population size, geographic distance and international borders all influenced the rapid spread of the virus.  

“It was apparent to a few of us familiar with the differences between West Africa and the sites of previous outbreaks in central Africa that this might not be a ‘normal’ outbreak,” Garry said.  “The high population densities and mobile population of Sierra Leone and surrounding countries proved to be a perfect storm, allowing the unprecedented spread of Ebola.”

Tulane and the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium followed the first 106 Ebola patients admitted to the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone at the beginning of the outbreak in May and June 2014. The team was able to get an unprecedented amount of detailed laboratory data on the emerging epidemic because researchers had been stationed at the hospital for a decade studying Lassa virus, another hemorrhagic fever endemic to West Africa. Limited clinical and lab data had existed for Ebola outbreaks as prior cases sporadically occurred in remote regions with few resources.

Garry and others warned that the outbreak, which started in rural areas, could spread to more densely populated urban areas where it would be more difficult to control without rapid and decisive international intervention.

“This analysis shows that those very factors, population density and mobility, were what drove the massive Ebola outbreak,” Garry said. “The study also points to interventions that might be useful in the next outbreak." 

The full study is available online at

December 2016

Inside Tulane Med

Garry Award
December 1, 2015

Robert F. Garry, a Tulane University
School of Medicine immunologist, has been named one of Foreign Policy magazine's 100 Global Thinkers of 2015 for helping to develop a 15-minute test for the Ebola virus.

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Tulane Wave


betzi image

Inside Tulane Med
October 2015

$1.6 million NIH grant awarded to Tulane Researcher Elizabeth Norton, Ph.D.

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New Wave
October 26, 2015

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Tulane New Wave
March 2, 2015

New test a ‘major piece’ of the Ebola puzzle

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February 26, 2015

"Tulane University researchers have received emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin using a new rapid Ebola detection test on patients showing signs of the infection." Rebeca Catalanello,

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Finger Prick Blood Test



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