Daniel Murin is using the research skills he honed in the biochemistry laboratories at The University of Southern Mississippi in the fight against one of the world’s most feared diseases.
Murin, a doctoral student at the renowned Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, is on a team of scientists that contributed to the development of a treatment for the Ebola virus known as ZMapp. The antibody cocktail, which showed promise in animal models, was recently used to treat two patients who contracted the disease in Africa.
While the condition of the patients treated with ZMapp continues to improve, Murin says he’s ready to examine the results and continue working with the Scripps research team on producing even more effective treatment going forward.
“The main idea behind the drug (ZMapp) is creating antibodies that alert the human immune system to an invader, like a virus, and attack it,” said Murin, a Hattiesburg, Miss. native.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the Ebola virus disease is a severe, often fatal illness with a case fatality rate of up to 90 percent. Infection is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, body fluids and tissues of infected animals or people. Symptoms include sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. These are followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, internal and external bleeding.
There is no licensed vaccine or treatment for the disease, with treatment focused on its symptoms . The recent outbreak in West Africa, where the two Americans contracted the disease, has infected more than 2,000 people with more than 1,000 of those cases turning fatal.
“Hopefully giving them the cocktail gave them a better chance at survival, but that’s not clear at this point,” said Murin. “Those who contract this particular strain of Ebola have a 45 percent chance of surviving on their own. Later on we can look at blood samples and the immune response, among other factors, to figure out if it worked or not.”
Murin said having more patients agree to take the therapeutic will also benefit Ebola research. “It will be interesting to see if there is a statistical significance (from taking ZMapp), but we need more cases (to study),” he said.
“We’re going to take the lessons learned from this first generation therapeutic and improve upon it. We think we can make something better, but this first one is a good step in right direction, and it seems to be fairly safe. ZMapp puts something out there where there is currently nothing in terms of a treatment.”
Murin said the biggest challenge for treating Ebola in Africa is lack of infrastructure in the continent’s poverty-stricken countries where the outbreak is taking place. “We don’t have as much to worry about here in the U.S. in the event of an outbreak, because we have excellent medical care and the tools to combat it,” he said. “But it’s devastating for the affected countries in Africa.”
At Southern Miss, Murin was a Presidential Scholar and student in its prestigious Honors College, graduating in 2008 with a degree in chemistry and biochemistry. He also studied abroad at the University of Exeter in England. But he became familiar with the university and its strengths in scientific research long before his freshman year at USM.
While in the eighth grade at nearby Oak Grove Middle School, Murin sought help with a science fair project from Southern Miss biochemistry professor Dr. Sabine Heinhorst. Impressed by his keen interest in science, she offered him an opportunity to participate in her laboratory research through high school and college.
“After his first day in the lab it was obvious that he was ‘hooked’ and would one day become a research scientist; he is very bright, loves science and is driven to succeed,” said Heinhorst, who is chair of the university’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
She said Murin’s research contributions in her lab resulted in his earning co-authorship on two peer-reviewed publications from her research group, and allowing him to write a strong Honors Thesis.
“Like so many students at Southern Miss, Daniel benefitted from the strong emphasis we place on undergraduate research and creative activities, and made use of the many opportunities we provide our students to showcase their accomplishments,” she said.
Murin said he decided to continue his education at Southern Miss after graduating from high school because “I had made a niche for myself in Dr. Heinhorst’s lab and felt really supported.”
“At USM, I got an excellent education, studying under some top-notch scientists,” he said. “I wasn’t lost in a sea of people in most of the classes I took – and that was essential. I didn’t want to be a small fish in a big pond.”
Murin said he’s grateful to Heinhorst for taking him under her wing at an early age, before even becoming a student at the university. “I just got really lucky meeting her when I was still in middle school, and that she involved me in the research in her laboratory at such an early age means a lot to me,” he said.
“Then, as an undergraduate, the expectation for me was as high as anyone in her lab, including graduate students. I gained great writing and research skills, and I credit that to her holding me to a higher standard. Not every mentor is like that.”
Murin says those experiences at Southern Miss are the reason he now plays an important role in combating Ebola. “Scripps is one of top 5 research institutions in the country, and being accepted into the school and having this opportunity to conduct such important, life-saving research is a direct reflection of my work and education at USM,” he said.