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Ebola and Lassa fever targeted by new vaccine trial and improved surveillance

Copyright: NIAID on Flickr by CC 2.0
News from: University of Cambridge

Scientists hope that a new approach to vaccine development, combined with improved surveillance of potential future threats of outbreak, could help to massively reduce the impact of deadly diseases such as Ebola, Marburg and Lassa fever.

Ebola and Lassa viruses mutate frequently as they circulate in animal populations. Over time this results in many different strains of both diseases being present in animals, posing a serious and sustained risk to human health. The presence of multiple, diverse strains make it difficult to produce a vaccine which can consistently protect against the diseases over time.

A new £1.5 million project, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge aims to develop vaccines for Ebola and Lassa which will be effective against multiple strains.

The study will examine the different strains of both Ebola and Lassa present in bats and rats respectively, in Ghana and Nigeria, identifying virus proteins which remain constant across different virus strains. Researchers will use this information, along with knowledge of effective immune responses from survivors of these diseases, to identify promising vaccine targets, which will cover the broadest range of disease strains. A vaccine using this antigen will then be produced and studied to see how effective it is.

Professor Jonathan Heeney from the University of Cambridge, says, “We’ve taken fundamental science that stretches back almost two decades and developed a new approach to developing vaccines which has the potential to dramatically reduce the development time and changes the way in which the industry makes vaccines.”

The funding for this study is part of a £5 million commitment from the Department of Health and Social Care to fund five projects to develop new vaccines with a ‘One Health’ focus, considering how the environment, the health of animals and the health of humans interact. This sits within the government’s £120 million UK aid commitment to develop vaccines to help tackle diseases with epidemic potential.

The research project will last for three years, is funded by UK aid and will be managed by BBSRC.

Professor Jonathan Heeney has also received £1.4 million from BBSRC to lead a project that aims to predict where future outbreaks may arise from and the likely strains, and to then use this knowledge to inform vaccine design. He will work with veterinarians, clinicians, ecologists and medical and public health workers in West Africa to understand how people catch Lassa fever from rat populations. Their work will include trapping rat species that carry these viruses and placing GPS tags to monitor their movements, as well as obtaining molecular, genomic and antibody data from the animals and viral sequences from infected rats.

BBSRC funds research into zoonotic diseases carried primarily by farmed and other domesticated animals. However, sometimes wild animal diseases also pose a significant risk to human health and wellbeing.

Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of BBSRC says, “This important research from the team at the University of Cambridge is about providing effective treatments for some potentially deadly diseases spread by rats and bats: Lassa and Ebola respectively. Novel strategies to combat dangerous infections like these are essential and often underpin the development of much-needed next generation vaccines.

“Professor Jonathan Heeney and team have already made a significant difference in this area, researching cross species transmissions of these viruses, with a view to developing vaccines for Ebola and Lassa that would be effective against multiple strains.”


Notes to editors

  • There are multiple strains of Ebola and Lassa viruses and they continue to evolve rapidly as they circulate in animal populations
  • A vaccine developed against one strain of the virus may not protect against all other strains
  • New research by University of Cambridge aims to develop vaccines for Ebola and Lassa which will be effective against multiple strains
  • The £1.5 million project lasts three years and is funded by UK Aid via the Department of Health and Social Care.

About University of Cambridge

The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. To date, 98 affiliates of the University have won the Nobel Prize.

Founded in 1209, the University comprises 31 autonomous Colleges, which admit undergraduates and provide small-group tuition, and 150 departments, faculties and institutions. Cambridge is a global university. Its 19,000 student body includes 3,700 international students from 120 countries. Cambridge researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and the University has established larger-scale partnerships in Asia, Africa and America.

The University sits at the heart of the ‘Cambridge cluster’, which employs 60,000 people and has in excess of £12 billion in turnover generated annually by the 4,700 knowledge-intensive firms in and around the city. The city publishes 341 patents per 100,000 residents.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by government, BBSRC invested £498 million in world-class bioscience in 2017-18. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

More information about UK Research and Innovation.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes.

Header image copyright: NIAID on Flickr by CC 2.0.

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