By Michele McDonald
Flying in a small plane over Kenya 25 years ago, researcher Charlie Bailey searched for mosquito breeding grounds where he thought the virus that causes Rift Valley fever hid between outbreaks. He returned to Africa last month with better methods of diagnosing the devastating disease.
While Nairobi has grown in the decades since the George Mason University researcher’s first visit, mosquito-borne Rift Valley fever continues to sweep through communities. And it’s taken on a more sinister aspect: the virus could be turned into a biological weapon.
Bailey retired from the U.S. Army as a colonel in 1993, notably working at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland. He now heads the George Mason-based National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases (NCBID).
Bailey’s interest in Rift Valley fever hasn’t waned since his early days in the Army. The virus is miserable when it strikes humans. Most people report intense flu-like symptoms, but they survive. Lesions on the eyes, brain-swelling meningoencephalitis, or hemorrhagic fever can appear in more severe cases.
The virus is much more destructive to animals, causing pregnant cattle, goats, and other livestock to miscarry. Rift Valley fever pummels already fragile economies that depend on livestock.
Worse yet, if the virus is transformed into an aerosol spray, wide swaths of human and animal populations could be infected. Mason’s NCBID lab contains special equipment to handle aerosolized viruses.
To date, there aren’t any effective methods to prevent or stop the virus from progressing. But Bailey and his team are using technology developed by Mason researchers to diagnose the virus in its early stages. That way it can be contained and clearly identified as Rift Valley fever and not be mistaken for another disease with similar symptoms.
Dubbed the “Nanotrap,” this technology literally traps the virus well before more traditional tests are able to detect it. Mason researchers Lance Liotta and Emanuel “Chip” Petricoin, codirectors of the Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, created the Nanotrap. A Mason spin-off company, Ceres Nanosciences, is bringing the test to market to help diagnose other diseases, including tick-borne Lyme disease, and even help pinpoint the best cancer treatments.
NCBID researcher Kylene Kehn-Hall, who joined Bailey on this latest trip to Kenya, fine-tuned the Ceres test for Rift Valley fever. “It takes people like Kylene who have the in-depth training to develop the new diagnostic tests,” Bailey says. “That’s the reason why Kylene’s work is so important.”
Kehn-Hall has partnered with Rosemary Sang from the Centre for Virus Research, part of the Nairobi-based Kenya Medical Research Institute. The institute has coveted clinical samples of Rift Valley fever.
“It’s a goldmine for us,” Kehn-Hall says of the sample repository. “It allows us to take something we’re working with and show how it can be applied to actual clinical samples.”
The Nanotrap is especially useful because it’s built to handle rougher situations outside a lab’s controlled environment. “You have to overcome all these obstacles out in the field,” Kehn-Hall says.
Bailey knows all about obstacles and Rift Valley fever. Back in the 1980s, he wanted to find out how the fever survives when it’s not causing epidemics. He suspected the virus could be hiding in mosquito breeding areas. But they’re tough to find in dry environs.
Driving didn’t give Bailey the perspective he needed, so he took to the air. And that’s how he found the areas that tested positive for harboring Rift Valley fever and answered a key question about the disease’s life cycle.
On this most recent trip to Kenya, Kehn-Hall and Bailey showed researchers how easy it is to work with the highly sensitive Nanotrap to diagnose the virus. “This test would help people know if there is another epidemic coming,” Kehn-Hall says.
For Bailey, it was good to return to Kenya.“The major change is traffic in Nairobi,” he says. “The landscape itself hasn’t changed that much.” And he was glad to return with new technology to offer the Kenyans in the fight against Rift Valley fever.
The trip was Kehn-Hall’s first to Kenya. “It was wonderful,” she says of working with the researchers. She also took time to visit the Masai tribe and go on safaris. “Giraffes are my favorite animal. We saw monkeys. They wanted my chocolate bar—I got a little scared.”
And she discovered researchers even continents apart share many of the same challenges. “They were cramped for space in the research facilities,” Kehn-Hall says. “But then we’re all cramped for space.”