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Collecting data to defeat Ebola

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The results of groundbreaking research on the Ebola virus by EU-funded scientists are feeding into global efforts to find effective treatments for the disease – and ultimately save lives.

The Ebola virus has claimed some 11 300 lives so far in the most recent epidemic in West Africa. While the spread of the virus seems to have been contained, the hunt continues for a safe, effective treatment for the disease along with ways to prevent the next outbreak.

The EU took up the challenge early on in the current outbreak by funding research projects examining promising approaches to defeating the virus. Among them is the EVIDENT project, which is gathering critical information on the virus and how it spreads from human to human.

The breakthrough discoveries so far, including data on its genetic evolution, could help other projects conducting clinical trials on potential vaccines and treatments.

“We are trying to find out what is happening in the body when someone gets the virus and dies compared to those who recover,” says project coordinator Stephan Günther of the Bernard Nocht Institute in Germany. “Effective treatments can only be designed if we know exactly how the Ebola virus mutates and behaves in the body. Our research will eventually also help speed up the design of novel strategies for treating patients with the disease.”

For example, the project is mapping Ebola’s genetic evolution. Earlier this year the team was able to announce that Ebola had mutated at a lower rate than feared.

“This means that the new diagnostic methods, treatments and vaccines under development should still be effective in the fight to eradicate the disease,” says Professor Günther. “We will continue to study and monitor the genetic changes within the Ebola virus, so we can spot if and when potentially dangerous changes occur."

Tracking outbreaks to a source

The genetic information would also help healthcare workers track any new occurrences back to the source, such as a specific village. This information would allow them to more rapidly identify and isolate infected people so they don’t pass the virus to new victims.

The project has also identified new biomarkers for Ebola – characteristic genetic, immunological or chemical signs in the body of the disease’s presence. These biomarkers could be used to find out how the virus induces the disease and how the body reacts to virus. Biomarkers also provide additional information to more accurately determine the effectiveness of drugs undergoing clinical trials.

The discovery of new biomarkers also opens up the possibility of developing treatments to stimulate the immune system’s response in patients, says Günther. Ebola spreads in the body by disarming the normal immune response necessary to defeat the virus.

The EVIDENT team is also:

  • studying the suitability of treating patients with plasma derived from the blood of those who have fully recovered from Ebola;
  • examining the effectiveness of experimental vaccines by comparing the immune responses of test subjects with those of recovered patients;
  • looking at ways to improve supportive treatments for patients and reduce mortality rates;
  • providing information on the infectiousness of body fluids such as blood, breast milk, sweat, sputum and seminal fluid at different stages of Ebola infection.

Professor Günther notes that some recovered patients still have the ability to pass on the virus to others and the project is working to discover how this infection occurs.

“This is a very crazy virus,” he says. “It has some mechanism to persist at a very low level in some people after they recover and be transmitted to others. We need to find out how they can still carry the virus and infect others.”

Professor Günther hopes the project’s approach to studying Ebola will be used to prevent future outbreaks of both this disease and related viral diseases. This approach includes the development of techniques to rapidly map the genetic evolution of Ebola during outbreaks.

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