Brooke Coupal ‘17
When Nancy Sullivan arrived as a freshman at Merrimack in 1976, she wanted to be in the biology program but was rejected because of her SAT scores.
Today, Sullivan is hoping a vaccine she developed will be the answer to the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
Sullivan works as the Chief of the Biodefense Research Section within the Vaccine Research Center. This center is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, one of the 27 institutes of the National Institute of Health. Through Sullivan’s work here, she has researched Ebola, creating a vaccine for this virus.
Sullivan first gained interest in the field of research while at Merrimack College. She entered the college as a liberal arts major, declaring biology at the end of her sophomore year, due to her SAT scores not being high enough for her to enter this major as a freshman.
As a biology major at Merrimack, Sullivan had hopes of being a veterinarian. Her mind was soon changed after experiencing a biochemistry class with Dr. George Wermers. He encouraged Sullivan to think about going into a field of research. She continued to take classes with him, letting her to believe that research may be the right field choice for her. After working as a lab technician for three years, she then went on to get her masters in environmental engineering only to confirm her passion for research. This led her to Harvard University, where she furthered her studies in research.
“I have such fond memories of my time at Merrimack. Beginning with the very caring community of faculty members and priests, individualized attention from having a small student body and small classes, the sincere interest that the faculty took in the success of their students, and then, of course, my classmates. I’m still very friendly with my classmates from the time I was there. I felt that it was such an exceptional place,” Sullivan said.
A Wilmington resident while in college, she never expected to go to Merrimack due to its close location to her hometown.
“I was like ‘Why would I want to go there?’ And I’m just so glad that I did because Dr. Wermers was a huge influence on the path that I took. And I wonder if I had gone someplace else if I would be where I am today. I really benefited from my time at Merrimack,” said Sullivan.
Following Merrimack College, Sullivan got involved in Ebola research after she graduated from graduate school at Harvard University. While at Harvard, she studied HIV, focusing on understanding the outer coat protein of that virus.
“When one transitions from graduate school to post-doctorial training, it’s prudent to change fields slightly to broaden one’s experience,” Sullivan said.
Upon entering her post doctorial training in 1997, she decided to research the Ebola virus due to its similarities to the HIV outer coat protein.
“At the time, people were beginning to think that the Ebola virus was so aggressive that you couldn’t get a vaccine to protect,” said Sullivan.
While researching this virus, Sullivan worked on making a vaccine. Her first vaccine was published back in 2000.
“Even though it wasn’t a perfect vaccine, it showed that you could get a vaccine to protect,” she said.
This vaccine required people to get certain boosters for it to work properly, so Sullivan’s new goal was to develop a vaccine that would work fast and not require boosters. Sullivan’s next vaccine would protect monkeys from Ebola using a single shot.
“Monkeys are similar enough to humans that we think that’s a pretty good model for what will work in humans,” she explained.
Certain aspects of this vaccine needed to be improved, and there were setbacks along the way. But eventually, in 2011, Sullivan discovered a vaccine that was “really good and sort of filled all the criteria that we had set out for what we needed in the vaccine.”
The next few years were spent making the protection last longer, as well as allowing the vaccine to take effect quickly — in this case within four weeks of getting a single shot of the vaccine.
Then the Ebola outbreak occurred, and the research and need for a vaccine accelerated.
The National Institute of Health originally planned on doing a Phase One clinical trial at their facilities on humans in December. Due to the seriousness of the outbreak, the National Institute of Health worked with the Food and Drug Administration to accelerate review of the vaccine trial so it could get started earlier. With approval, clinical trials started in September. Trial sites include Oxford, England, a university in Switzerland, a site in Mali, and another study site in Ghana. The National Institute of Health also has two other arms of their own trial taking place at the University of Maryland and Emory University.
There are challenges with testing vaccines for Ebola and doing efficacy trials in humans. An efficacy trial would consist of giving half a population that’s at high risk of infection the vaccine, while not giving the vaccine to the other half, known as a placebo. These people are then followed over time to see if the vaccinated individuals have a lower rate of inquiring infection.
“In the middle of an outbreak, that approach is not only difficult logistically because this is in resource poor countries, but there are also a lot of ethical questions,” Sullivan stated.
One of these questions is is it ethical to not vaccinate one group? Sullivan responds to this by saying, “You can flip that and say is it ethical to vaccinate them because unless you know that a vaccine is going to provide a benefit and not any harm, there are risks both ways.”
Thoughtful people, ethicists, scientists, and clinicians are trying to design studies that are both beneficial and ethical. Sullivan believes that this clinical trial “will happen, unless the outbreak is brought under control before it is necessary.”
“My greatest hope is that the outbreak will be brought under control using tradition methods that have worked with past outbreaks. That is identifying cases, contacts, quarantining cases, and tracing contacts,” she said. “The other thing that we always thought, but it is coming much more apparent now, is that if a patient receives very high levels of clinical care, their chance of surviving the infection goes up tremendously.”
Most of the patients who have been treated for Ebola in the United States have lived due to the amount of care that they have received. The same cannot be said about the patients in West Africa. Sullivan believes that if the level of health care there could be improved, that alone could have a major benefit with the treatment of Ebola.
Through all of this, Sullivan hopes that the outbreak can be controlled.
“I hope we don’t need to use it [the vaccine], but I hope if we do need to use it that we’re ready to do that and help,” she revealed. If the time does come to use the vaccine, then a company called GlaxoSmithKline PLC who has been working with the National Institute of Health with this vaccine, will produce large doses if need be.