Northwest labs and donors leading the fight against Ebola

David La at the UW’s Baker Laboratory is part of a team working on potential Ebola treatments, but they’re also crowdsourcing ideas over the Internet relating to a cure. (Photo by Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)
David La at the UW’s Baker Laboratory is part of a team working on potential Ebola treatments, but they’re also using online crowdsourcing tools to get closer to a cure. (Photo by Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)

“We’re working longer hours, and voluntarily, too,” says David La as he takes a break on the glittering glass balcony of the University of Washington’s Molecular Biology building. “I mean, what better way to do protein design than apply it to a problem that is really important?”

That really important problem is Ebola. And La’s work at UW-based Baker Laboratory developing protein inhibitors that could halt the advance of Ebola in an infected person is just one example of the contributions our region is making in the face of one of the scariest outbreaks in recent memory.

This week President Obama promised 3,000 military personnel, the creation of a command and control center and 17 treatment centers to West Africa. The move was in response to a mounting death toll (over 2,400 people by most recent counts) and the increasing inability of the global community to contain the worst outbreak since the virus was discovered in the 1970s.

Closer to home, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made headlines when it pledged $50 million toward the effort in the largest emergency-relief grant the foundation has ever made. And over the past week, Paul Allen and his foundation have committed more than $20 million.

But the Gateses aren’t the only locals trying to help. From nonprofit organizations mobilizing health workers and Ebola-prevention campaigns to hospitals sending supplies, foundations securing grants for drug development and individual nurses volunteering on the ground, the Pacific Northwest is stepping up.

“There are Washington state organizations at every point on the continuum in this fight against Ebola,” says Lisa Cohen of the Washington Global Health Alliance, a center for global-health innovation. “I can’t think of anywhere in the world other than the [World Health Organization] that would have a collection of organizations doing everything from funding to research to on-the-ground response.”

David La’s work at Baker Laboratory — which began two years ago — falls under the research category, and La says they’re throwing everything they have at the effort. They are even using Foldit, the online, crowdsourcing computer game, to solicit help from the public by encouraging them to play a puzzle where they can explore the structure of the Ebola virus, hopefully helping to map it in ways a computer alone cannot.

“Especially for Ebola we put everything out there [through Foldit] because we want things to move quickly,” explains La, who hopes these efforts will result in a cheap, easily replicable treatment for Ebola “sooner rather than later.”

A microscopic image created by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith shows the Ebola virus viron. (Photo from Wikipedia)
A microscopic image created by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith shows the Ebola virus viron. (Photo from Wikipedia)

Over in South Lake Union at Katze Lab, researchers have the unique opportunity to work with the live Ebola virus through a partnership with Rocky Mountain Laboratories outside of Missoula, Montana, (where the virus is stored in a “highly secure” lab). The resulting research looks to explore different immunities to Ebola by studying the genetic codes of mice infected with the virus.

“It’s comparable to what you’d see in a human population,” says Dr. Angela Rasmussen, describing the different categories of responses in mice — some that survive infection, others that die without developing “bleeding abnormalities” and those who develop “hemorrhagic fever” (often the cause of the bleeding you may have heard about in the news) and die.

Rasmussen hopes this research will help to develop more targeted treatments.

While the international community has been criticized for being slow to address the Ebola threat and outbreak, Cohen says that Ebola research already in progress in our community — combined with a network of organizations long established in West Africa — means our region is uniquely poised to help.

“It’s all hands on deck,” says Cohen. “Even those who weren’t working on this before can use their expertise to address [it].”

For La back at Baker Labs, it means a more intense workday — but he says it’s worth it.

“The pressure is definitely there but it’s a good pressure,” he explained. “I mean if things work out, it’s going to help a lot of people.”

Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at
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