Pentagon Seeks to Design Virus-Fighting Protein 'Cocktails'

'Monoclonal antibodies' could protect against Ebola and 'alphaviruses,' such as Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

The U.S. Defense Department is weighing a new search for immune-protein "cocktails" it hopes will protect humans against Ebola and other deadly, weapon-usable viruses.

The Pentagon two weeks ago invited scientists to submit research proposals for designing "monoclonal antibodies" that could protect against Ebola and Marburg, as well as "alphaviruses" such as Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

Pentagon planners have been turning to antibodies as a possible tool because "no easy and quick fix" for such agents has emerged from efforts to develop vaccines or traditional antiviral treatments, said Gigi Gronvall, a senior associate with the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The early-stage research now under consideration ideally would lead to single-shot treatments capable of guarding troops for months from multiple virus types, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency said in a Sept. 18solicitation. DTRA officials welcomed researchers to propose "'cocktails' that may enable cross-protection against multiple species of virus."

The emphasis on "cocktails" makes the latest DTRA proposal particularly notable, because several studies suggest that mixes of several antibodies can be particularly effective in fighting pathogens, Gronvall told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview. Antibodies hit their targets with such specificity that a treatment with multiple immune proteins can help account for slight variations between invading microbes.

Monoclonal antibodies have been in use since the 1980s to treat cancer and immune-linked ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, but their use against infectious pathogens has lagged, according to a DTRA-sponsored report co-authored by Gronvall on the technology's biodefense potential.

The United States last year licensed the first inhalation anthrax treatment to use the technology, which involves creating massive quantities of a single immune "antibody." The human body naturally generates such proteins, each of which is designed to mark a specific pathogen or toxin for elimination by other immune-system components.

One antibody cocktail grown in modified tobacco plants showed promising potency against Ebola infections specifically, according to a study published in August.

"There have been a lot of changes in the way that monoclonal antibody technologies have evolved over the last several years, and it makes monoclonal antibodies a very nice piece of their approach to medical countermeasures,"  Gronvall said.

The latest DTRA Broad Agency Announcement seeks proposals for studies no longer than one year, with a cost no greater than $500 million. The filing deadline is Oct. 16.