March 29, 2009

Experimental Vaccine Used To Save Scientist’s Life

On March 12, a scientist accidentally pricked her finger with a needle used to inject the Ebola virus into lab mice. 

Quickly after, many virologists, biologists, and other scientists gathered on a conference call to try and devise a way to save her life.

Within 24 hours, an experimental vaccine was sent to Germany from a Canadian lab, although the vaccine had never been tested on humans.

Soon after, the 45-year-old scientist was injected with the vaccine.

If she remains healthy through Thursday, scientists believe she can consider herself safe from the deadly virus.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is one of the world's most feared diseases.  Seen mostly in Africa, the disease causes flu-like symptoms, but days later leads to bleeding through the nose, mouth, and eyes.  The disease kills up to 90 percent of those infected, and has no cure.

According to Dr. Stephan Guenther, head of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, the scientist in question has remained healthy.

The 21-day incubation period for the disease has passed this week, he told the Associated Press.

It still remains unclear as to whether the scientist was infected with the virus.  She was wearing three layers of protective gloves when the needle stuck her.

Researchers are unlikely that they will be able to tell if the vaccine actually worked in preventing the disease.

Previously a Russian researcher died in a similar incident, and a British scientist became ill but survived.

Dr. Guenther had to act quickly after hearing of the incident, which occurred at the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine.

He quickly sent an e-mail to researchers in the Ebola community.  Dr. Heinz Feldmann, chief of the virology laboratory at Rocky Mountain Laboratories, was one of those who received the e-mail.

"We considered this as serious as (the Russian) case, in terms of the exposure," Feldmann told the Associated Press.

Feldmann, Guenther and other experts held a teleconference to discuss their options.

The researchers talked about three possible options: a vaccine that had never been tested on humans, a treatment that interferes with the virus' ability to multiply, and an anticoagulant that has been used to treat monkeys exposed to Ebola.

They decided upon using the vaccine, which was developed nine years earlier by Feldmann at a Canadian government lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The vaccine was based on a different virus, but researchers were able to make the virus look like Ebola, causing the immune system to respond to the virus.

Feldmann and other scientists tested the vaccine on eight monkeys in 2008.  Half of the monkeys survived with no side effects.

"The group came very swiftly to agreement that this vaccine would be the best ... because it had showed an effectiveness when used after exposure," Guenther said.

The scientist who had been pricked eventually made the decision herself and took the vaccine 48 hours after the incident.  Over the next 12 hours she came down with muscle pain, a fever, and a headache, but quickly recovered.

"Those are normal reactions to live attenuated vaccines," Feldmann said.

According to Feldmann, this incident cannot be used to draw conclusion about the effectiveness of the vaccine.

The team of researchers only used the vaccine as a possible means to save the infected scientists life, said Feldmann.  The vaccine is still about five years away from being tested on humans, he added.

Guenther hopes the case will attract more funding for research on the vaccine.

"Of course, we can't just go to Africa, now that we have seen such a vaccine went well when used on a human," Guenther said.

"Perhaps this will be like a little push, where one says, yes, it's possible. Everything that we are doing on an experimental level can actually be put into practice."