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Nancy Sullivan, Chief of the Biodefense Research Section at the National Institutes of Health, talks about leading a two-decade effort to develop a treatment for Ebola that has drastically reduced the death rate for this disease

A two-decade research journey has led to a treatment that cuts the death rate from Ebola from 70% of untreated people down to nearly 10% for people who get medicine. Nancy Sullivan, Chief of the Biodefense Research Section at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, has led that journey. She is a finalist for a Service to America Medal in the Science and Environment category.

Ebola is in a family of viruses with Sudan virus, Marburg virus and others. When Sullivan first started working on Ebola, we did not know much about how to protect against it, and “there had been about 20 years of failed attempts to develop a vaccine or a treatment.” Sullivan said that working on a vaccine helped her to develop the treatment.

Partnership within government was critical, she explained. “The basic scientific discoveries took place in my lab, and then we move outward in collaboration.” When she and her colleagues wanted to get the treatment out on a bigger scale and treat patients in Congo, they partnered with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Defense Department to make large numbers of the monoclonal antibody used in the treatment.

The drug, which is awaiting FDA approval, helps reverse symptoms in people who are already sick with the Ebola virus. The treatment uses technology to clone a gene that makes a specific, potent antibody, found in the cells of survivors.

This treatment is similar to some of the therapies that are currently being pursued as potential treatments for the coronavirus. Next, Sullivan will work on combating the Sudan virus and others. She reflected, “I think one of the things that’s really great about NIH is that we can work in a way to anticipate what the next thing might be. So the coronavirus, we made rapid progress in part because other scientists here at NIH … had been studying coronaviruses for a long time, just as I had been studying Ebola for a long time. And so then when it’s a crisis, we can move very rapidly to move things into a therapeutic or a vaccine.”

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