As Ebola Outbreak Spreads in West Africa, U.S. Scientists Look for Cure

Just over a dozen American laboratories can experiment with the deadly virus, and one in Texas reports some promise in animal studies.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
July 29, 2014, 11:15 a.m.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the Ebola vir­us.

The deadly vir­us likely comes from fruit bats, but sci­ent­ists don’t know for sure. They also don’t know all the ways the highly con­ta­gious vir­us is trans­mit­ted, nor how the dis­ease de­vel­ops with­in in­fec­ted people, al­most 90 per­cent of whom will die. And they don’t know to treat it or cure it.

Since Feb­ru­ary, the worst Ebola out­break West­ern Africa has ever seen has claimed more than 670 lives, in­clud­ing a prom­in­ent Liber­ia doc­tor who tried to con­tain the dis­ease. This month, the vir­us traveled by plane for the first time, when Patrick Saw­yer flew from Liber­ia to Ni­ger­ia, where he died days later from the vir­us.

As health work­ers try to con­tain the grow­ing out­break in Africa, sci­ent­ists 6,000 miles away are try­ing to de­vel­op the tools they need to do it.

Re­search­ers at the Galve­ston Na­tion­al Labor­at­ory in Texas are work­ing to pro­duce three prom­ising vac­cines and treat­ments for the Ebola vir­us, thanks to a $28 mil­lion grant from the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health. The labor­at­ory, op­er­ated by the Uni­versity of Texas Med­ic­al Branch, is one of only about 15 fa­cil­it­ies that are al­lowed to store and ex­per­i­ment with Ebola. The vir­us is clas­si­fied as a biosafety level 4 agent, the des­ig­na­tion giv­en by the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion to the most dan­ger­ous agents known to hu­mans. The Galve­ston labor­at­ory, and oth­er biosafety level 4 labs like it, is spe­cially equipped to handle — and con­tain — such agents.

The re­search­ers say they have had some suc­cess so far. “We have pre­vent­ive vac­cine and an­ti­vir­al drugs that can com­pletely pro­tect against Ebola on labor­at­ory an­im­als in a lab set­ting,” Thomas Geis­ber, a pro­fess­or of mi­cro­bi­o­logy and im­mun­o­logy at the Uni­versity of Texas Med­ic­al Branch, tells the loc­al ABC af­fil­i­ate. Geis­ber, like all re­search­ers and health work­ers who come in con­tact with the vir­us and in­fec­ted pa­tients, wears a pro­tect­ive body­suit every day while he works so he doesn’t con­tract Ebola him­self.

Ebola first ap­peared in 1976 in what is now known as the Demo­crat­ic Re­pub­lic of Congo. The vir­us at­tacks the im­mune sys­tem, caus­ing fever, vomit­ing, diarrhea and, in the most severe cases, in­tern­al and ex­tern­al bleed­ing. Ex­perts be­lieve the vir­us is trans­mit­ted through con­tact with in­fec­ted people’s bod­ily flu­ids. The most doc­tors can do is give pa­tients flu­ids, keep their blood pres­sure down, and hope for the best.

Like most re­search on the Ebola vir­us, the ex­per­i­ment­al treat­ments at Galve­ston have shown prom­ise only in an­im­als, and even those res­ults are far too pre­lim­in­ary. The Ebola vir­us is in­cred­ibly dif­fi­cult to study. It’s highly in­fec­tious, so it can only be stud­ied in high-tech fa­cil­it­ies like the one in Galve­ston, which means few­er re­search­ers are work­ing on de­vel­op­ing a cure. People in­fec­ted with the vir­us do not live long enough for doc­tors to ex­am­ine how the dis­ease pro­gresses, and giv­ing it to hu­man test sub­jects in the lab is not an op­tion.

Pre­vi­ous out­breaks have been con­trolled and even­tu­ally petered out, but this year’s is dif­fer­ent. Its rap­id growth, as well as Saw­yer’s death, have sparked fears that the vir­us could travel out­side of Africa, where the dis­ease has nev­er been re­por­ted in hu­mans. As NBC’s Mag­gie Fox put it, Ebola “is only a short plane ride from any city on Earth.”

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