Scientists reported on Friday that Pentagon-backed research has yielded a breakthrough in the fight against the Ebola virus, a pathogen that is also feared as a future bioterror weapon.
They said monkeys injected with the deadliest strain of Ebola survived after receiving an experimental formula that uses tiny particles of genetic material to disrupt viral reproduction.
This is the first time a drug has protected non-human primates against Ebola, a virus that is sometimes referred to as a “slate wiper” for its ruthless culling of lives.
Ebola is one of a family of so-called filoviruses, which cause hemorrhagic fever, a rare but highly lethal disease in which the patient can bleed to death, sometimes from the mouth, ears and eyes.
There have been five Ebola strains identified since the first case came to light at the Ebola River in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1976.
The deadliest is the Zaire strain, which inflicts a death rate of 80 to 90 percent.
Thomas Geisbert of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories Institute at Boston University School of Medicine led a team that tested the formula on two groups of rhesus macaque monkeys after getting promising results on guinea pigs.
The drug contains so-called small interfering RNAs, or siRNAs, designed to act as tiny wrenches that are thrown into the machinery of enzymes that enable the virus to replicate.
Three monkeys were given a potentially lethal dose of ZEBOV in the first experiment and then inoculated with four doses of the drug on successive days. One of the animals died.
The second group consisted of four monkeys that received seven successive doses and all survived.
In both experiments, a “control” monkey that was not inoculated died from the virus.
Geisbert said the results marked a major step forward, although he cautioned that a long road still lies ahead in other safety tests before the treatment could be licensed for humans.
“We believe this work justifies the immediate development of this treatment as an agent to treat EBOV-infected patients, either in outbreaks or accidental laboratory exposures,” he told AFP News.
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency funded the work, which is a branch of the Pentagon that works on strategies against weapons of mass destruction.
According to the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO), about 1,850 cases of Ebola, with about 1,200 deaths, have occurred since 1976.
The virus has a natural reservoir in several species of African fruit bat. Gorillas and other non-human primates are also susceptible to the disease.
The Lancet published the results.
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