Thomas and Joan Geisbert will work to develop vaccines and therapies for biosafety level 4 viruses

Virologists Thomas and Joan Geisbert, internationally recognized for their work with the deadly Ebola and Marburg viruses, have joined the infectious disease research program of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. 

“Tom and Joan Geisbert bring a wealth of experience that will help us jump-start our program on hemorrhagic fever viruses, and provide valuable leadership as we train students, staff and faculty for work in the new containment laboratories in the Galveston National Laboratory,” said James LeDuc, director of the GNL. “We are especially pleased and proud that Tom and Joan have chosen Galveston as their new home.”

Scott Weaver, the GNL’s scientific director and the director of UTMB Health’s Institute for Human Infections and Immunity, concurred, saying: “The Geisberts are highly experienced in biosafety level 4 containment research, having worked extensively at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases. This background makes them ideal additions to our programs in biodefense and emerging infectious diseases.”

In a way, Thomas Geisbert has been involved in high-containment research for his entire life: his father worked as a facilities engineer for the research institute. In 1985 the younger Geisbert joined the institute, where he began working in BSL3 and BSL4 labs. At the time, Joan Geisbert was already a veteran  technician, having started work at the facility in 1974.

“It’s a real challenge to do science at level 4. To work well in a suit lab you’ve always got to be planning ahead, always thinking — you really have to be creative,” Joan Geisbert said. “I just fell in love with it.”

The Geisberts had their first encounter with Ebola when tissue samples from monkeys thought to have been infected with the relatively benign simian hemorrhagic fever virus were brought to the Army facility  for analysis — an episode made famous by Richard Preston’s terrifying bestseller The Hot Zone. Thomas Geisbert’s electron microscope images gave the first hint that the monkeys had actually contracted a strain of Ebola virus, whose most lethal form kills between 50 and 90 percent of those it infects.

Since the incident, the couple has done steady, groundbreaking work with Ebola and its relative Marburg. In 2006, in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health researcher Dr. Peter Jahrling and Health Canada’s Heinz Feldmann, among others, they demonstrated a vaccine that could protect monkeys against Marburg virus even after the animals had been infected. 

In 2009, the researchers showed that a similar vaccine shielded primates from three different Ebola strains as well as Marburg, even providing some protection if administered after the animal was exposed to the virus. 

This year, the Geisberts published a paper detailing the successful development of a treatment for Ebola that used tiny strands of genetic material known as small interfering RNAs to block the growth of the virus in monkeys.

“There’s a tremendous push by groups like the World Health Organization to have things that they can take into these outbreaks and treat people, because now they’ve got nothing,” Thomas Geisbert said. “If you had something like the siRNAs or the vaccine, you could really limit the size of an outbreak.”

A vaccine or treatment would also provide a vital safety factor for health care workers confronted by an Ebola or Marburg outbreak, Thomas Geisbert noted. In addition, intervention with an anti-Ebola vaccine may also be necessary for the survival of the world’s last remaining wild gorilla and chimpanzee populations, which have been ravaged by the virus in the last decade.

Meanwhile, the Geisberts have begun work on Nipah and Hendra viruses, two BSL4 pathogens first identified in the 1990s in Australia and Malaysia. Both viruses are highly lethal in humans, and experts fear that Nipah poses a particular danger for outbreaks among both humans and domestic animals.

“Nipah’s fatality rates are very Ebola-like, but the disease is different — it causes neurological symptoms and also has a respiratory component,” Thomas Geisbert said. “Hendra is really sort of a sister virus, and it infects horses. Usually the human cases have been veterinarians called out to treat sick horses.”

At UTMB Health the Geisberts also plan to investigate potential vaccines and therapies for infections by Lassa fever virus. The level 4 pathogen is a major public health threat in West Africa, where scientists estimate it kills more than 5,000 people every year. Political turmoil in the region has prevented an accurate count of Lassa’s victims; according to Thomas Geisbert, the annual infection rate could be in the hundreds of thousands. 

“This is a terrible problem for Africa, and it’s also a global threat,” Thomas Geisbert said. “People have gotten on airplanes with Lassa and carried the disease far from its source — our modern transportation network makes this something public health authorities all over the world need to pay attention to.”