2020 Science, Technology and Environment

Nancy J. Sullivan, Ph.D.

Developed a highly effective medication for the deadly Ebola virus now awaiting federal approval, providing the ability to treat patients with this highly contagious disease that has ravaged African countries.

Listen to Nancy Sullivan discuss her work:

When a deadly Ebola epidemic swept through several African countries between 2014 and 2016, there was no effective treatment for the viral onslaught. Of the nearly 30,000 people sickened by the disease, more than one-third died.  

Nancy Sullivan and her team have since developed an effective antiviral infusion treatment for the Ebola virus in the laboratory she heads at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center. During clinical trials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018, the medication saved the lives of nearly 90% of Ebola patients who were treated soon after they contracted the disease. 

“Nancy Sullivan’s discovery of a therapeutic antibody to treat Ebola is a major scientific and clinical advancement and may be used to treat populations during future Ebola outbreaks,” said Marybeth Daucher, an associate director at NIH’s vaccine center. 

Sullivan’s drug is awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval. Should it come, as expected, “the impact will be worldwide,” said Dr. Julie Ledgerwood, the deputy director and chief medical officer at the vaccine center. 

“Nancy Sullivan is a world expert on Ebola and similar viruses. She is the driving force behind this treatment. Her leadership was key,” Ledgerwood said.  

While Sullivan’s discovery will lead to the treatment of those who have the disease, the FDA in December 2019 approved a vaccine for the prevention of the Ebola virus that is marketed by Merck & Co. The vaccine is based on the work of Canadian scientists, although Sullivan played a role in this research as well. 

Over the course of two decades, Sullivan’s work focused on pivotal experiments that led to the discovery, use and manufacture of a treatment based on an antibody, mAb114, found in the blood of a survivor of the Ebola disease. Along with colleagues in the U.S. and the Congo, Sullivan conceptualized a strategy that started with tracking down a survivor from a 1995 Ebola outbreak, drawing blood from that survivor and looking for potent Ebola antibodies.  

After isolating and characterizing the mAb114 antibody, which binds to a single target within the core of the Ebola virus surface, she delivered mAb114 to monkeys that had been injected with lethal doses of Ebola. The research found that a single dose of the therapy resulted in a high rate of cure among the infected monkeys.  

By 2018, Sullivan and her colleagues at the vaccine center manufactured a therapeutic for use in the first human clinical trial that was conducted at the NIH. Patient results were highly encouraging—so much so that when there was an Ebola outbreak in the Congo in the summer of 2018, a supply of the mAb114 was quickly deployed for use on desperately sick patients through a compassionate use protocol.  

The results confirmed what earlier experiments had suggested: the antibody therapy reduced the fatality rate from as high as 70% for untreated people to as low as 10% for those who received t the medicine.  

“She established the critical scientific foundation that led to the development of mAb114,” said Dr. John Mascola, the director of the vaccine center. “She not only theorized the design of mAb114, but she also worked with clinical teams and an international network of scientists, public health officials and government regulators to enable the experimental treatment that saved upwards of 300 lives during the August 2018 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”  

Looking back at the almost two decades it took to find and isolate the potent antibodies and develop them into an effective treatment, Sullivan recalled, “I’ve had many, many failures over time, but as devastating as those were, the data from each case has provided critical information for understanding the basis of immune protection against Ebola.”  

She said she tells her students, “All of the information that you gain from studies, even failures, can be valuable for putting together pieces of the puzzle.” 

Sullivan is known as a mentor to post-doctoral students and peers at the NIH as well as in the Congo. Scientists from the Congo have spent years under her guidance and have continued to collaborate and conduct life-saving research since returning home.  

“She leads her group and they do really good, rigorous work,” said Dr. Barney Graham, deputy director of the vaccine center. “She is very thorough and very demanding. And that’s the reason they were able to find this kind of one-in-a-million antibody.”