What to Know Regarding Current Treatments for Ebola

After more than a decade of vigorous research into the deadly Ebola virus, a handful of potential treatment therapies appear to finally be on the horizon.
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Christopher F. Basler, PhD.
Professor of Microbiology
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

After more than a decade of vigorous research into the deadly Ebola virus, a handful of potential treatment therapies appear to finally be on the horizon.

But as is always the case with clinical trials, there are no guarantees of success.

This month I and my colleagues at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, along with researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, published results in the journal Cell Host & Microbe of a major discovery into how the Ebola virus cripples the human immune defense system.

Our team was the first ever to identify the mechanism by which Ebola works. We discovered that the potent virus creates two key proteins that disable human messenger proteins whose function is to alert nearby cells to threat. We're working with the pharmaceutical company Microbiotix, located in Worcester, Mass., to develop a drug that disables the viral proteins and potentially halts the virus from growing in human hosts.

Demand for Ebola treatments have shot up in recent months after more than 1,400 people in West Africa died in the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded. So far only one drug has been administered to stricken patients, ZMapp, made by San Diego company Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc. But the drug, a tri-antibody cocktail designed to bind to the surfaceprotein of the Ebola virus, remains experimental and, despite the fact that its two first recipients survived, its effectiveness in humans remains uncertain.

A cure for Ebola has still not been found partly because large pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to invest in a drug with a small market size. But fortunately, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Department of Defense invested a lot of money in basic research and drug and vaccine development for these viruses over the past 10 to 15 years, and clearly that's paid off.
Now there are a number of candidate vaccines and therapies that work in animals. I think that's very significant progress.

Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, a Canadian company, recently reported that its drug saved the lives of monkeys infected with lethal doses of a closely related virus, Marburg. The primates lived even when they received the drug three days after infection. Tekmira started the first clinical trials of an experimental Ebola drug last month, but the trial was halted because some people participating in the study suffered from inflammation. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.) gave the green light this month for the drug to be tested on people who already have the Ebola virus.

Aside from fully understanding the basic science of how Ebola travels in humans, we researchers face other challenges in finding a cure such as making a drug that works days after a person has been infected with the virus, and designing a drug that can be taken in pill form rather than intravenously.

But these are small concerns compared with a decade ago when Ebola drug development was almost nonexistent.

We've turned a corner. We now know there are ways to treat Ebola. We just have to come up with therapies that work in people.

About Christopher Basler, PhD: Dr. Basler has devoted his career to the study of Ebola and Marburg viruses since 2000. He heads several government-funded projects charged with studying the Ebola and Marburg viruses and developing drugs to fight them. One, financed by the DOD, focuses on bats, which are resistant to the two viruses. Dr. Basler is also a researcher of the Mount Sinai Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute.