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Curing Ebola? Promising New Drug is in the Works

May 04, 2015 05:58 PM EDT
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The Ebola outbreak, which made headlines just last year, is slowly-but-surely coming under control, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and public health initiatives. It's no secret that to prevent future outbreaks, experts are scrambling to create an effective vaccine. However, that kind of work takes time, and immunization isn't always available. That's why it's equally good news to hear that, for the first time, a medicinal approach for treating Ebola has seen some success in early trials.

Ebola isn't exactly a virus that needs an introduction (explore the history of Ebola here). It has been causing complete disarray in West Africa for the greater part of the last 16 months, jumping from Guinea's most remote regions to its capital, and on to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other bordering countries. Symptoms include severe fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and horrific bleeding from the eyes, ears, mouth, and rectum. This is preceded by a brief period of simple flu-like symptoms, such as weakness and body aches that start at least two days after initial exposure.

That early stage then, is the best time for physicians to tackle the disease, which traditionally only boasts a 50 percent mortality rate. As shown in several imported cases in North America and France, if the disease is caught early enough, the human body - with the help of a suit of modern medication - has a fighting chance. However, if the disease isn't addressed until far later - when it is at its most contagious and most deadly -mortality rates can spike up to a stunning 90 percent, as was seen in Sierra Leone. The result? As of April 11, nearly 11,000 deaths from the Ebola infection have been linked back to the ongoing epidemic's December 2013 roots.

"[While] we can mount a highly effective response to small and medium-sized outbreaks... when faced with an emergency of this scale, our current capacities and systems - national and international - simply have not coped," read a joint statement from the WHO's director-general, deputy director-general and regional directors.

This then suggests that while headway in vaccination development gives us hope, containing a similar outbreak among regions where a vaccine has yet to circulate could remain a major problem. The solution? Rapid deployment of a treatment that can stave off the infection in a head-on scenario. As things stand, there are no approved drugs that can treat or manage the Ebola infection directly. Instead, doctors have simply worked to boost the human immune system response to buy time for patients. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : SFC Rodney P. Horner. / Army Medicine) MEDDAC-Japan conducts bilateral Ebola preparedness drill.

Enter: A new generation of "lipid nanoparticle therapeutic treatements"

A team led by Thomas Geisbert at the University of Texas, in collaboration with Tekmira Pharmaceuticals in Vancouver, Canada, have been developing therapies that can target specific strains of the Ebola virus.

This is achieved through the use of small interfering RNA (siRNA) - short pieces of RNA designed to interrupt the production of key proteins crucial for the virus' survival. And because these RNA pieces fit into Ebola cells like a key in a lock, patients don't have to worry about the inhibitors also disrupting processes in any "friendly" cells. Most importantly, these siRNAs can be redesigned as the Ebola virus evolves, keeping the treatment relevant from generation-to-generation.

And while that certainly sounds effective, the question remains: does really it work? According to a study recently published in the journal Naturethe answer you're looking for is a resounding "yes" - at least for monkeys.

"The candidate treatment was rapidly adapted to target the Makona outbreak strain of Ebola virus," Geisbert explained in a recent release. "We were able to protect all of our nonhuman primates against a lethal Makona Ebola infection when treatment began 3 days following infection."

These promising results have put the siRNA approach on a fast-track for treatment in humans, with patients in Sierra Leone - a country that still reports nine confirmed Ebola cases a week - taking part in an ongoing phase 2 clinical trial.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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