Prominent Immunologist Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire On Antibody Research

Courtesy of Aviva Weiser

On Feb. 29 and March 1, President and CEO of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology Erica Ollmann Saphire spoke at Swarthmore as part of the 2023-2024 Chemistry and Biochemistry Colloquium Series. She first talked about “Antibodies Against Emerging Infectious Disease: A Global Collaboration” on Feb. 29 and discussed the antibodies she had been developing to create a vaccine for Lassa fever and measles. 

“We take these high-resolution photographs of how viruses fold up, how they’re vulnerable, what sites are appropriate to attack [the virus] or not, and learn how to use that information to design better vaccines or medical interventions.”

She then described the process of identifying antibodies effective in treating Lassa fever and creating a vaccine against it. 

“Antibodies are what your immune system makes to fight disease. Your immune system makes them in response to an infection or a vaccine. You can also make them in the laboratory and deliver them as drugs, such as when antivenom is given when you’ve had a snake bite.”

Unfortunately, according to Saphire, most scientists didn’t believe there was an immune system defense for Lassa. Saphire stated that analyses of survivors of Lassa fever had previously led to the conclusion that “they don’t make those kinds of antibodies.” However, by taking antibodies from people with consistent exposure to the virus as a result of their occupations, Saphire’s lab proved this wrong.   

“It turns out that these antibodies do exist, but they are specific for the properly assembled form of the viral surface protein,” Saphire said. “We were able to find antibodies in people that had been exposed over and over again, through their jobs or their life. Turns out that when you put three antibodies together, you can make a treatment that’s life-saving.”

A treatment for Lassa created by Saphire’s lab based on these antibodies is undergoing FDA approval. Saphire mentioned that her lab is also currently working on developing a vaccine for the virus. 

She then discussed the measles vaccine that her lab was creating and explained that the current vaccine works only in people who aren’t immunocompromised, leaving immunocompromised individuals at risk. 

“The measles vaccine that is available is a live attenuated virus or a virus that’s been weakened. So if you have a healthy immune system and you receive this vaccine, it slowly infects a couple of your cells, your immune system wipes it out right away and recognizes it as a threat, and then you make an immune response,” she explained. “There’s more people that are living with immune diseases or immunocompromised disorders that can’t receive the vaccine. The vaccine itself might make them very sick or be lethal.”

Saphire emphasized that a large proportion of the population needs to be vaccinated for measles in order for herd immunity to protect immunocompromised individuals. 

“Measles is so infectious that you need 95% of people vaccinated to provide that herd immunity barrier for others. We have now dipped below 95% vaccine coverage and have about 93% coverage.”  

Her lab is hoping to determine which antibodies fight measles and create a vaccine that immunocompromised people can take.

“We’re interested in making an antibody treatment, so there’s something for these people when the measles outbreaks are getting bigger every year. We were also interested in seeing if we could make another vaccine,” she explained.

That is a project currently underway, and although the lab has yet to publish its results, there is promising evidence of an identified antibody. 

Aaron Thammavongxay ’25, a biochemistry major, explained that although the talk focused on technical elements of the lab’s accomplishments, Saphire explained the relevance of her work well. 

“She kept the big picture very much in mind about why these things were formed and why they’re relevant, which I think helped me understand because this is not a topic that I know very well,” Thammavongxay said. 

During her second talk, “How to Turn Competitors into Collaborators,” Saphire provided strategies for coordinating scientists to help create solutions to epidemics such as Ebola and COVID. 

“We wanted to make antibody therapies against a couple different viruses: Ebola, Lassa, SARS-CoV-2, but scientists disagreed on how you might measure what the best antibodies were. How do you decide what’s best? Scientists, as a research field, hadn’t figured it out,” she explained. 

The solution was simply doing a larger, joint study that she called the “immunotherapeutic consortium.” 

“We just had to do a bigger study with more people using more techniques, more disciplines, and more samples in order to do a better job, so we had to create a research structure by which 44 different labs could work together,” she explained.

The labs eventually successfully created a new treatment and comprehensive mapping of the many antibody treatments for Ebola.

“We devised two parallel experimental tracks. A small group with a small set of samples that had a pretty good idea that rocketed forward and that became ZMapp, one of the first therapies in Africa,” Sapphire said. “Then we devised a comprehensive track, which was the one that I was doing, with all of the world’s antibodies.”

Saphire was then asked to repeat the consortium by the Gates Foundation, but for SARS-CoV-2 after the COVID-19 pandemic started. She explained the process of accruing funding from the National Institutes for Health (NIH).

“The NIH’s problem was that they have a limited number of clinical trial beds and clinical trial dollars, but every company says their therapy is the best. The NIH said to me, ‘We will fund your trial because we need independent confirmation of what all of these companies are saying about their antibodies,’” she explained.

The lab’s data analysis of antibodies was initially successful but became more challenging once new variants became more prevalent. 

“Once we got to Omicron it was kind of a bloodbath for the [antibody] samples and only 5% still worked.”

Thammavongxay shared that Saphire’s second talk covered techniques that he had used before, such as culturing cells, and reinforced to him the relevance of his work. 

 “That was really meaningful for me to see because when people think about careers in research [there’s this idea that] it’s scientists in the lab doing random stuff,not how these things actually get applied to people.” he stated. 

Saphire expressed that her time on campus had given her a positive impression of the college’s students and faculty.

“I’m super impressed with the students here. I’ve just really enjoyed meeting them and the opportunities you have for research are really extraordinary,” she stated.“Your faculty are just beautifully dedicated to facilitating research and discovery.”

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