Researchers Continue Investigation of Promising Ebola Antibodies Amid Rising Death Toll

Davy James, Associate Editor
Published Online: Wednesday, August 6, 2014
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Efforts to halt the spread of Ebola are ongoing as a Saudi Arabian man suspected of having the virus adds to the climbing death toll in West Africa.

An investigation into the antibodies recently used to treat American relief workers who contracted Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Liberia is ongoing, with hopes that a weakness in the virus has been found, according to The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI).

The 2 Americans stricken with Ebola, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, were deteriorating rapidly before they received an unproven treatment called ZMapp that was developed by San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical, Inc. The pair has reportedly improved since receiving the treatment, which acts as a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies that bind and inactivate the virus by recognizing infected cells and triggering the immune system to kill them off, according to Mapp.

“What we’re showing are sites of vulnerability on the surface of the virus,” said C. Daniel Murin, of TSRI, in a press release. “These are the chinks in the armor of the virus and the places where you would want your anti-serum to target.”

The organization’s efforts are focused on the antibodies to determine the atomic structure of crystalline arrays of proteins. Using high-resolution images, researchers are seeking to discover how immune system molecules bind to Ebola and prevent it from functioning.

TSRI is currently testing the most promising antibody cocktails from around the world as part of a $28 million National Institutes of Health-funded consortium to determine the most effective treatment in neutralizing Ebola and similar viruses. 

“An ideal antibody cocktail would ease symptoms and improve the prognosis of infected individuals. It could even work as a preventative measure, protecting health care workers before they enter an infected area,” TSRI said in the press release.

In other recent developments, a Saudi Arabian man suspected of contracting the virus on a business trip to Sierra Leone died early today in Jeddah, according to Reuters. Samples from the man, who showed early signs of viral hemorrhagic fever, are being evaluated at laboratories certified by the World Health Organization (WHO) for Ebola and other viruses, the report stated.

Amid rising fears, a commercial airliner was held for a short time after arriving from the United Arab Emirates at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Tuesday after a sick passenger was reported, though the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) subsequently determined the passenger had suffered a seizure, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Difficulties in identifying Ebola persist for physicians, as the symptoms in the early days of the disease match other infectious diseases like malaria, typhoid, and cholera, according to Medscape. Generally, it takes a period of 3 to 5 days or longer before disease markers like hemorrhagic blisters and internal hemorrhage begin to occur.

US hospitals have been instructed by the CDC to test patients who have traveled in regions of West Africa affected by Ebola and currently exhibit a high fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. There have been 22 suspected cases reported to the CDC in the United States, and 4 of those cases have met the requirements for testing, according to a report on NPR. Two of the 4 patients tested positive for malaria, while the 3rd tested negative for Ebola. Results are still pending for the 4th case.

The latest figures released by WHO report an Ebola-related death toll around 900, with more than 1700 suspected and confirmed cases. WHO began a 2-day emergency meeting today to decide whether to declare the West African outbreak an international crisis.

Despite rampant fears, the likelihood of a global outbreak is extremely low, as Ebola is not an airborne virus and can only be acquired by direct contact with the bodily secretions of an infected person.

“The actual risk to citizens living and working in the United States is quite low, and the public should be well aware that emergency departments and critical care units in the United States are well equipped and prepared in the event that a patient with a recent travel history from West Africa, along with flu-like and gastrointestinal symptoms, presents to the hospital,” wrote Robert Gladder, MD, in a report on Medscape.

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