Breakthrough: The Incredible Innovations That Will Change Your Life
Ebola first broke news headlines all over the world in 2014 after an epidemic of the disease broke out in Guinea in 2013. It quickly spread to neighbouring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia, prompting fears of a global pandemic.
Today, the ebola epidemic is considered under control and has been eliminated entirely from Liberia. We heard little about the heroes behind the scenes who saved many thousands of people through their incredible dedication to their work.
For the first time on international television, groundbreaking new series Breakthrough uncovers the struggles researchers faced fighting the ebola virus. Overcoming astonishing odds to identify the virus’ vulnerabilities, diagnose a disease that initially seems a minor affliction, and creating a vaccine – all with precious little funding – have meant the difference between a worldwide pandemic and your sitting comfortably in your seat reading this right now.
Erica Ollman Saphire is a Professor of Immunology and Bacterial Science at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California. She and her team have been at the forefront of fighting ebola, spending nearly five years trying to solve the structure of the Ebola virus glycoprotein (research she, fortunately, undertook long before the outbreak in West Africa). Her team’s success led to the creation of a quick and cheap diagnostic tool to separate ebola patients from the many who are simply suffering a fever or bad headache. It also led to the creation of the vaccine by Dr. Maria Croyle.
Put simply, Ollman Saphire’s day job has saved thousands upon thousands of lives.
But success was far from easy to achieve. Speaking to TVGuide.co.uk and a group of other journalists, Ollman Saphire detailed the difficult five years in which her team staked everything they had on the identification of the ebola glycoprotein.
“The big breakthrough that allowed the whole thing to happen was in 2008 when we solved the structure of the surface protein of the ebola virus. That’s what gave us the roadmap to understanding exactly where to find all the antibodies and how everything should work, but that was a five year effort.
“There were four of us in the lab full time on this quest to get this structure, and it was difficult because the job of this protein is to change itself to hide from the immune system and to change its structure to drive itself into the cell. The form it takes on the surface of the virus is not its most stable form. It is tension-coiled like a spear fishing rod to want to change its structure and drive itself into the cell.
“So finding a way of stabilising and capturing the transient form – the one you want to target for vaccines – took five years. We had hundreds of different ways, we had to bind dozens of different antibodies to it, we made tremendous quantities of this protein and we grew 50,000 crystals. In this 50,000 there were two that would scatter the x-rays well enough to solve the structure.
“This was the founding project of my lab. I [was a] brand new professor and I had to prove myself and I had to get results. I had staked my future and the future of my extremely talented post-doc at the time, Jeffrey Lee, and other people in the lab, on going after this challenging problem. If we could get this then we would understand so much, but for four and a half years we had nothing. There were no results. We couldn’t get them. They’re very trying times. You’ve staked your career on this, your post-grad’s career on this, everything on this. Getting through those barriers is probably the hardest thing.”
Asked how she got through the setbacks, she said: “You’ve got no choice. You’ve just got to keep going. Everything was staked on that. That was the most important and useful thing that we could contribute to the field and it just had to work. You just keep beating on it until you find a way.”
In finding a cure, Ollman Saphire was crucial. Citing problems with limited resources and a number of teams across the world working on the same thing (“The pharmaceutical industry isn’t interested in treatments for ebola virus, you’re not going to make any money out of it, they all have to be donated or given to people who don’t have health insurance”), she created the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Immunotherapeutic Consortium, or VIC for short. She invited researchers across the world to submit their antibody solutions to her for free, so her team could anonymously mix the samples and send them on to researchers to uncover the best solution to ebola. The open invite was an unexpected success, with antibodies submitted from all over the world, a combination of which ultimately became used in Croyle’s vaccine. Ollman Saphire galvanised ebola research teams from across the world.
Asked whether she was surprised about the success of VIC, Ollman Saphire said: “I was surprised. We had this idea in 2012, pre-outbreak. I had this idea because I do the molecular biology, I had the roadmap in my head of where these different proteins would bind, so it was quite obvious to me that we had to get everything on the same page and just figure out based on the data what was going to work. What I didn’t know is if everybody would agree. It was very easy for me to say that, but none of these antibodies belonged to me. But it turns out you just needed to ask people and they thought this is the thing to do, we can get further faster.”
Ollman Saphire’s work may have saved thousands, but she highlights that the epidemic and hysteria might never have happened in the first place, if only international authorities were open to seeing the long term benefit in investing in the science before an outbreak occurs.
“Infectious disease is a global problem and microbes travel. We need to be a bit more giving of our time and funding and research, because I think that had you spent a small amount of money to make these vaccines and treatments available a decade ago, you could have stopped this, hit fewer people, and you would have saved a lot of money in the long run.”
Over the course of six episodes, Breakthrough will uncover scientific innovations and the pioneers in science who regularly play with the barriers of all we thought possible. Each episode is directed by one of Hollywood’s greatest visionaries, including Peter Berg, Brett Ratner, Paul Giamatti, Ron Howard, Akiva Goldsman and Angela Bassett.
Breakthrough’s first incredible episode, Fighting Pandemics, airs tonight (November 8) on National Geographic Channel at 10pm.