Two 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 may have found a way to treat the 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.
As a direct result of Wilson’s death, Washington University Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine, Dr. Jacco Boon, is conducting research on lab mice infected with Bourbon virus, which is a distant cousin to influenza.
Boon, an influenza virus researcher, works 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.
“I’m very excited to be a part of this,” Boon said. “The patient was treated at Barnes and the university is able to do something with it.”
Because the disease is so rare, researchers are using a direct strain of Bourbon virus taken from Wilson to create cultures and conduct the testing and potentially save lives in the future.
“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.”
Boon has found the use of an experimental antiviral drug favipiravir, which inhibits a key protein the virus needs to multiply, has 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.
Boon added it is still unknown why some human patients are able to fight off the virus and survive and others perish from it.
“We just don’t know,” Boon said. “There could be so many underlying factors, I would hate to speculate. Existing health issues, age and genetics could all play a role.”
Boon said the experimental drug has been proven to treat a wide range of illnesses, but it may be years away from approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
“The first thing we are going to do is look at similar drugs,” Boon said. “Awareness is also key. Bourbon virus is in circulation in the Midwest and beyond it. We are trying to set up studies and share information of how many people may have been exposed.”
Boon added the research being done now will hopefully be able to save the lives of those infected with the virus in the future both because of accurate diagnoses and treatment with the proper antiviral drugs.
Over the weekend Tamela Wilson’s children gathered to celebrate their mother’s life on the second anniversary of her death.
Her daughter, Amy Daugherty, said they chose Ha Ha Tonka State Park to recreate a childhood family photo her mom had taken and framed in 1985.
Daugherty said it is wonderful to hear the research being done to save lives in the future would not be possible without her mother.
“I hate that she’s gone but knowing her death can be the result of something so great is just amazing,” Daugherty said. “She was amazing in life and amazing in death as well. I’m so glad I shared her story after her passing. I knew something wonderful would come from it.”
The Missourian first broke the story of Wilson’s death on Fourth of July weekend in 2017. The story was the most viewed on The Missourian website in 2017, generating more than 117,000 hits and was shared more than 2,000 times on Facebook, reaching 113,783 people.
Since then, the new virus has become a worldwide phenomena thrusting Wilson’s family into the national spotlight and shedding light on the virus for the first time and increasing the awareness of tick bites.