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Could Camels Save us From MERS?

Apr 09, 2015 04:27 AM EDT
Some Saudi Arabians REALLY love their camels, and even kissed their beasts in defiance of ministry restrictions on how the animals could be handled during last year's MERS outbreaks. Now it might be desperate scientists wanting to give camels a big "thank you" smooch. (Photo : Flickr: David Dennis )

Many people now know that it was camels which caused the alarming spread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) seen last year, but did you know that it was also suspected that those same beasts of burden could protect us from the debilitating disease?

A new study recently published in the American Society for Microbiology's (ASM) Journal of Virology has revealed that antibodies harvested from dromedary camels have successfully protected lab mice from MERS infection in a series of experimental trials.

"Our results suggest that these antibodies might prove therapeutic for MERS patients, and might protect uninfected household members and healthcare workers against MERS," co-author Stanley Perlman, of the University of Iowa, said in a statement.

And this is a pretty big deal. If you can't remember all the hubbub of the past year, MERS is a potentially deadly viral infection that causes severe fever and difficulty breathing. The World Health Organization (WHO) had reported that it kills 33 percent of those infected, as no vaccine or effective treatment is currently available. Saudi Arabia (SAU), one of two regions where the virus supposedly originated, recently suffered from a long stint of multiple and massive outbreaks, resulting in the great majority (>85%) of nearly 1,000 reported infections over the last two years.

And while the wave of outbreaks - a disaster prompted by poor healthcare conditions in SAU - has abated, doctors are still worried another epidemic could arise at any time. That's why they are scrambling to develop a vaccine to stave off the virus - a goal normally achieved after isolating a former human patient's antibodies. Unfortunately, the virus works and dies fast. With few former patients as it is, the ones that do remain often boast antibody counts that are too low, or they are simply too unhealthy or inaccessible to donate.

That's why Perlman and his colleagues are so pleased with their results. Past studies have shown that the same MERS that jumped to humans had been circulating among camels for decades, if not centuries - affecting the animals to a far less deadly degree.

Camels, then, are a ready supply for MERS antibodies - a boon for researchers in search for an immunotherapy resource.

"The antibody will work in humans if delivered in sufficient quantities," Perlman added. "The main hurdle is purifying the antibody and making sure that it is safe to administer to humans."

If and when that will be achieved, however, remains to be seen.

**CORRECTION** This article previously stated that the study could be found in the Journal of Microbiology. This has since been updated.

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