Today at Berkeley Lab

ALS User Develops Drug to Help to Save Lives of Ebola Victims

Saphire, front, with colleague Marisa Roberto

Saphire, front, with colleague Marisa Roberto

— By Keri Troutman

With the Ebola virus outbreak worsening and the news of two Americans recovering thanks to a cutting-edge drug treatment, structural biologist Erica Ollmann Saphire has been thrust into the news as a spokesperson for the scientific community. It’s a new role for the Ebola virus researcher, whose Scripps Research Institute lab played a key part in understanding and fine-tuning the much-lauded Ebola treatment that saved an American doctor and nurse last month. Saphire, who has been an Advanced Light Source user for the past 16 years, recently took some time away from her new on-camera role to talk about her experience.

“When a possible medicine that came out of basic research is suddenly in the news and the public is paying attention, you have to get out there and explain it as much as possible, just so that people understand what basic research is,” explains Saphire of her appearances on numerous news segments. “Most of my collaborators work for government or military and are not allowed to speak with the press; I’m the academic, and I’m the head of the antibody consortium, so I had to make sure the questions were answered.”

Saphire sees the experience as a way to shed light on the importance of public funding for basic research, stressing that without funding and access to synchrotrons, drug development for diseases like Ebola would not move forward. She’s also seen it as a good opportunity to convey to people that structural biology is not as complicated as they might think, using visually compelling models to explain how viruses and the drugs that target them work.

“Amid an increasingly tighter budget, it’s getting harder and harder to find the funds you need to do this kind of work— but if you don’t do the work there are no medicines,” she says. “People always ask ‘why isn’t there a cure for this?’ and the answer is that any time a doctor gives you medicine, behind it is a team of scientists that worked for decades to develop that drug—a lot of their work is fundamental research, so if the cure isn’t there, it’s because there is still research that must be done.”

The Ollmann Saphire Laboratory is one part of a multi-disciplinary collaboration on Ebola virus that includes researchers looking at genetics, survival antibodies, public health outreach efforts, and ecology education. It’s a marriage of structure and mechanism with genetics and ecology, which is something Saphire has been interested in since her undergraduate days at Rice University, where she did a double major in biochemistry and ecology/evolutionary biology. “I really liked thinking about how what happened at the molecular level ultimately affected what happened on the organismal and ecological level,” she says.

How structure informed function was really impressed on Saphire when she took a course on X-ray crystallography and learned about how researchers use synchrotons to solve protein structures and unveil functionalities within. “X-ray crystallography is the most intellectually satisfying thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” she says. “Everything you need to know is written in that protein structure if you’re just smart enough to figure out how to get it out.”

Ecology was Saphire’s first foray into the scientific world—she recalls many childhood family camping trips spent exploring mud, bugs, leaves and rock formations. In graduate school, she was drawn to viruses when she read about an antibody that could neutralize most kinds of HIV. It ended up being the subject of her graduate thesis.

When she opened her own lab in 2003, she chose to focus on Ebola and the less-deadly, but more widespread Lassa virus because there were numerous problems associated with them that only a structural biologist could solve. The viruses she works on have limited genomes, but even with just four to seven genes, they have many more than four to seven functions. Their proteins have been evolutionarily crafted to be multifunctional and incredibly efficient, which she finds fascinating.

“Viruses are mysterious; there’s a lot we don’t understand about them,” she says. “It’s illuminating to see what proteins in general can do by looking at what the proteins of these viruses can do—by watching how they can leverage a limited protein tool-kit into the worst pathogenesis we’ve ever seen.”

With the Ebola virus outbreak continuing to dominate headlines, Saphire’s fervent hope is that the general public will gain a greater understanding of how important scientific research is in general and its multiplicative benefits to society.

Go here to watch a news report on Saphire’s work.