Crowdfunding a cure for Ebola

Dr. Erica Saphire, a scientist with the Scripps Research Institute, who used crowdfunding to research a cure for Ebola.
The Scripps Research Institute
Dr. Erica Saphire, a scientist with the Scripps Research Institute, who used crowdfunding to research a cure for Ebola.

As health-care officials scramble to contain the worsening Ebola outbreak around the world, an unusual fundraising effort from a leading institute has struck a chord with the general public.

Dr. Erica Saphire and the Scripps Research Institute were part of the consortium that developed the ZMapp serum, the experimental drug believed to have cured five people infected with Ebola this summer. To create a road map for new treatments, though, they needed new equipment—and fast. The quickest way to get that, they decided, was via a crowdfunding campaign.


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The public quickly responded. In less than two weeks, the fundraising effort on Crowdrise has collected $99,450, putting it just shy of its $100,000 goal.

"When you think about Kickstarter, everyone who puts in money is receiving a product," said Saphire. "This is pure altruism. ... I was really touched and honored."

The money will go toward the purchase of a fast protein liquid chromatography (FPLC) device, which will eliminate a bottleneck in the institute's purification process for samples. (At present, that must be done one sample at a time, and the process takes several hours. The FPLC will allow the institute to do multiple samples at once—and overnight.)

Twenty-five laboratories in seven countries are sending antibodies to Scripps so that Saphire and other researchers can hunt for the best medicine to fight against Ebola. The new equipment will help process them and accelerate her work.

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The institute is also seeking to improve ZMapp and to develop alternative treatments, a spokesman told Reuters. The hopeful cure is a mix of three antibodies that are designed to bind to proteins of the virus, which will prevent it from replication and triggering the immune response of infected cells.

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Saphire is quick to note that the National Institutes of Health has been a very strong supporter of the work Scripps has done over the past several years in researching the disease but says the current surge in Ebola-related federal spending has been in the testing and delivery of drugs and vaccines.

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Basic research, like that done at Scripps, must still go through the same funding processes it has for years, meaning the money often doesn't arrive for 12 to 18 months.

Samples of the virus, though, are arriving at the institute's labs regularly, as are requests from other labs for copies of the proteins.

Adding to the urgency is the fact that the virus has undergone many mutations since the 1994 outbreak. Understanding those changes is key to both conquering and preventing the spread of Ebola.

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"We're like enemy reconnaissance," said Saphire. "When you see the military bomb a particular room of a house to get someone, that's because it had intel photos telling it where to hit. The structure of the virus molecule is like that. It tells the weak points. ... Sequencing tells us what the changes are [compared to older samples of the virus]. The question is, What does that mean? If it has replaced one amino acid for another, has it changed the structure or the function? We have to understand how each of the molecules is behaving differently than before."

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Many crowdfunding efforts continue after they've met their goals, using the additional money to obtain additional equipment or resources. But Saphire said she's unsure if she'll keep this one going, since the time demands of publicizing it have been more distracting than she thought they would be.

"I really need to get back to doing some research," she said.