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She’s offering help — and hope — for a cure to Ebola

The Ebola virus ravages its victims, causing shock and death in 60% of patients it infects.

An ongoing outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the second-largest epidemic of the virus recorded anywhere — has killed thousands of people and left officials more desperate than ever for a cure.

Last August, scientists halted a trial of experimental Ebola drugs after one of them, REGN-EB3 showed results so promising that they deemed it unethical to randomize patients as originally designed. Sumathi Sivapalasingam ’90, an infectious disease physician, served as medical lead for the group that developed this treatment.

Now senior director in early clinical development at the New York-based biotech company Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Sivapalasingam was conducting clinical studies of treatments for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome when an Ebola outbreak began sweeping West Africa in 2014. 

She changed course immediately.

“People ask why I work in infectious diseases when there is little U.S. market for these drugs, while I could be instead working on something like heart disease — a leading cause of death,” says Sivapalasingam, who majored in physics at Swarthmore and was an epidemic intelligence service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigating global outbreaks in the
late 1990s. 

“I chose infectious diseases because this specialty is not just about individual patient care, but also about science and public health. There is an opportunity to have major impacts on communities. Ebola not only devastates patients, it destroys societies, so having an approved treatment can provide help and hope to patients, and maybe reduce the fear and mistrust in communities during outbreaks, which often hinder public health efforts
to stop outbreaks.”

In the trial, approximately 90% of those who took REGN-EB3 soon after their symptoms started, recovered. Sivapalasingam is now working to get REGN-EB3 officially FDA-approved. In the meantime, Ebola patients can access the therapy through a “compassionate use” provision that allows investigational drugs to be used during an emergency. 

“It’s incredibly emotional for me to see how our drug has helped hundreds of people who had a virus for which there previously was no treatment, with the potential to help thousands more,” she says. “So much of science is failure — in public health it can feel like you work a lifetime and only make a small impact. This experience is on a different level.”