Three years have passed since the death of Meramec State Park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson from complications of the Bourbon virus, and now researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are a year into finding a cure for the rare tick-borne illness.
Wilson died June 23, 2017, after spending 24 days in Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis with a then unknown illness that developed after a bite from a seed tick near her home in the state park outside Sullivan.
At the time, there had been less than five cases of Bourbon virus diagnosed in the United States with Wilson’s being the first in Missouri.
For the past year Washington University Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, Dr. Jacco Boon, has conducted research on lab mice infected with Bourbon virus, which is a distant cousin to influenza.
Boon, an influenza virus researcher, worked with the doctors at Barnes Jewish Hospital who diagnosed and treated Wilson before her death in 2017 and began testing current and emerging flu treatments for their potential to treat Bourbon virus.
“We don’t have anything as flashy to report at this point,” Boon said. “We have made antibodies, but as of yet, they have not neutralized the virus. Now, we will do it again until we find one that does.”
Boon added a $250,000 grant was received from the National Institute of Health to continue the Bourbon virus antibody research.
“The process is not perfect,” Boon said. “We are looking at a variety of different therapies.”
Boon added the grant was received last fall, but the university was shut down for about six weeks due to the COVID-19 outbreak, so that of course slowed research progress.
Because the disease is so rare, researchers originally used a direct strain of Bourbon virus taken from Wilson to create cultures and conduct the initial testing last year.
“Without her (Wilson’s) case, I would not have studied Bourbon virus,” Boon said. “There may have been other cases before (Wilson’s) but physicians wouldn’t have known what it was, or to send it to the CDC. Bourbon virus is now easier to diagnose.”
In 2019, Boon found the use of an experimental antiviral drug favipiravir, which inhibits a key protein the virus needs to multiply, had led to 100 percent survival rates in the lab mice.
The flu treatment drug is approved for use in Japan, but not currently in the U.S.
Since Wilson had underlying health issues that were exacerbated by the Bourbon virus, Boon used lab mice with compromised immune systems as the test group for the virus infection and drug administration. Healthy mice were able to fight off the virus.
All of the mice given the Bourbon virus died six to eight days after infection. The mice given the influenza drug survived.