Ebola: Horror and Hope for a Cure

As an unprecedented outbreak of Ebola crosses borders in West Africa, people are asking new questions about the virus and its potential to turn into a global pandemic (hint: it's not gonna happen). Greg Laden writes "The disease is too hot to not burn itself out, and it has no human reservoir. Ebola accidentally broke into the human population earlier this year or late last year." The current numbers from the WHO suggest 1800 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola so far with a mortality rate edging down toward 55%.

Last week some in the U.S. objected to bringing two American patients back home, but Tara C. Smith writes that Ebola has been there all along, in government labs, while related viruses like Lassa and Marburg have been imported by infected travelers without causing additional cases. The one characteristic of Ebola we can be thankful for is that it is only spread through contact with bodily fluids, not through the air like a cold or flu. Smith concludes, "Ebola is exotic and its symptoms can be terrifying, but also much easier to contain by people who know their stuff." Meanwhile, Greg Laden writes that an extremely rare, untested 'cure' for the illness does exist, and it has also been given to the two infected Americans. He's referring to anti-serum, i.e. blood serum containing natural Ebola antibodies modelled after those generated by infected mice. On Discovering Biology in a Digital World, Sandra Porter shows how the antibodies lock onto viral proteins, and says it is time to focus on mass-producing an effective antiserum for this horrible disease. On ERV, Abbie Smith explains how the manufacturing process works: genetically modifying viruses to contain blueprints for parts of Ebola antibodies, putting the viruses in bacteria as delivery vehicles, and using the bacteria to infect GMO tobacco plants whose cellular machinery will be hijacked to make molecules. Smith writes, "Plants are a pretty cheap way to produce a lot of protein. Blow up the plant cells, purify your protein, and BAM! A ton of anti-Ebola antibodies."

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One point has not yet been made clear in the coverage of Ebola that I have seen: does infection confer immunity on survivors? If Dr. Brantly chose to return to Africa, would he be safe from reinfection?

If Ebola works like smallpox did, there would be significant implications for controlling the disease; immune survivors would be able to work directly with sick patients without fear of contracting the disease themselves. They could dispense with the personal protective equipment that can frighten patients and deter them from presenting for treatment. Such equipment is a scarce resource in Africa, and survivors with even rudimentary training as caregivers could contribute to the control of the spread of the disease.

By Ed Whitney (not verified) on 21 Aug 2014 #permalink