Wanted: 60 volunteers to test experimental Ebola vaccine in Britain

LONDON (REUTERS) - Fancy testing an Ebola vaccine? It may sound scary but the scientist behind the British trial of a shot that has so far only been given to monkeys sees little risk and is optimistic he will drum up enough volunteers.

Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, needs 60 healthy individuals in the university town aged 18 to 50 to take part in the study of the experimental vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline.

Given mounting alarm at the world's worst outbreak of the disease, which has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa, GSK and researchers in Britain, the United States and Africa have decided to fast-track clinical testing.

That means Hill needs to pull out the stops to get volunteers on board by the target start date of mid-September.

"I think the chances are pretty good of recruiting enough people on time," Hill told Reuters. "We're going to be encouraging health-care staff in particular to volunteer - and we have a very large hospital in Oxford."

Others, including university students, may also take part - and all those participating will be entitled to a payment to compensate them for their time, since the trial will involve nine visits over six months, as well as a single injection.

The compensation is likely to be in the "low hundreds" of pounds, although the final figure has yet to be set by the ethical committee looking after this particular study.

"It won't make anyone rich," Hill said. He wanted volunteers who believed in the project rather than those needing the money.

Health-care workers are an obvious choice, he believes, since the World Health Organisation says they are a group that could benefit from the early emergency deployment of a vaccine.

The aim of the so-called Phase I trial is to assess safety and immune responses, so Hill will be on the look-out for side effects such as sore arms or fevers the day after injection.

He is not worried that any of the subjects will catch Ebola, since the vaccine contains no infectious Ebola virus material.

The only Ebola component is a gene for a protein that sits on the virus' surface - and that protein does not cause illness. The vaccine is nothing like more familiar vaccines, such as for mumps and rubella, which contain the actual virus.

The Jenner Institute vaccinates 2,000 people a year in clinical trials and has played a leading role in testing other vaccines that consist of a common cold virus, called an adenovirus, that has been engineered to carry inserted genes.

All such vaccines have had a good safety record in early-stage trials for diseases including malaria, tuberculosis and HIV, although none has yet made it to market, Hill said.

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