Dr. Kristina Obom, director of Advanced Academic Programs’ Center for Biotechnology Education, teaches a course called Emerging Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins University's Montgomery County Campus. The maladies addressed range from diseases that have reappeared in altered genetic forms, such as the influenza virus and the West Nile virus, to the lethal hemorrhagic fever caused by the Ebola virus.
The Ebola outbreak is affecting countries in Western Africa this year, and two Americans who were doing medical missionary work in Africa were transported to Emory University Hospital for treatment after contracting the disease.
Meanwhile, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that developed an experimental serum against Ebola, is led by two JHU graduates, Larry Zeitlin and Kevin Whaley. In addition, two graduates of JHU’s Master’s in Biotechnology program worked with Zeitlin and Whaley on a research paper that describes the experimental treatment.
All of this should make for fascinating discussions in Obom’s Emerging Infectious Diseases course this fall. Hopkins Happenings asked Obom about the disease, her course and about the success of her graduates:
What is Ebola?
Ebola is the name of a virus that causes an acute hemorrhagic disease. The virus is a member of the family Filoviridae, named for their long filament-like appearance in the electron microscope. The first outbreak detected was in 1976 in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Since then there have been sporadic outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa. None of them were as large as the current outbreak. It is thought that the natural reservoir of the virus is bats, and that monkeys become infected from the bats, and humans are infected from monkeys or bats. What makes this virus particularly dangerous is that humans can transmit it through contact with body fluids. The incubation period for the virus is 2 – 21 days and initial symptoms are flu-like.
Should Americans be scared, especially considering patients with Ebola have been brought to Emory University Hospital for treatment?
Americans in the US should not be scared. Since transmission of this virus requires contact with body fluids, in order to be infected you have to be close to a very sick individual. The virus is not spread through the air as flu is. Also the facilities at Emory University are set up to handle this kind of infection containment.
Tell us about your infectious diseases class. What topics do you discuss? What do you hope students learn from the course?
In Emerging Infectious Diseases we cover transmissible diseases that have arisen in the last 30 – 40 years, either because they have made a resurgence, such as Dengue; have taken on drug resistant characteristics, such as Malaria; or are newly arisen or recognized such as Ebola or avian influenza. The goal for the course is for students to understand the biology, pathogenesis and epidemiology of the particular organism, determine the factors for emergence of the agent and understand aspects of the public health response including communication, surveillance and laboratory methods for identification.
How are you going to approach the topic of Ebola this fall in your class?
Every time I teach this class there is some new outbreak so we will start the class with a focus on the current Ebola outbreak. There are several aspects to consider. First we will consider the virus and its pathogenesis. The mortality rate for this outbreak is lower than for other large outbreaks of Ebola. Is that a function of the virus’ pathogenicity, reporting or better treatment? How are people being treated? We will look very closely at all aspects of the public health response. Finally we will look at the new treatment and the upcoming vaccine trials
At least two Master’s in Biotechnology graduates are authors of the paper that describes the experimental treatment that was given to the two missionaries. Can you elaborate?
I would be delighted to elaborate. Two of our former students working for different organizations contributed to the development, production and testing of monoclonal antibodies that were given to the missionaries. The paper reporting on the success of this treatment in monkeys was a collaboration between U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Mapp Biopharmaceutical and Kentucky Bioprocessing. Our graduates were working at USAMRIID and Kentucky Bioprocessing.
Anything else you would like to add?
For people who are interested in finding out more about Ebola virus, the CDC website provides some great information http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html .