Researchers take first step to ending the threat of Ebola

Illustration for article titled Researchers take first step to ending the threat of Ebola

Chances of a massive outbreak of Ebola that would either devastate the world or precipitate another Dustin Hoffman action movie just declined slightly. Researchers have found a way to block one of Ebola's entryways into the body.


Back in the mid-nineties, when massive outbreaks of obscure viruses weren't just used as excuses to make zombie movies, the world was gripped by the fear of a nasty virus called Ebola. Recent books and films chronicled the forays Ebola and its relative, Marburg virus, made into civilization. Both are hemorrhagic fevers that had high death rates. The most mild estimations of Marburg give it a forty percent death rate. The most extreme strains of Ebola have a 90 percent death rate. Over the past few decades, several outbreaks of the diseases have occured. One outbreak of Ebola in Virginia was transmitted through the air - but fortunately only affected monkeys. One recent outbreak of Marburg virus killed 300 people over a period of a few months, ending in 2005.

Hemorrhagic fevers cause blood to pour out of every part of the body. People's eyes turn red as blood pours into the soft tissue of the eyeball. Victims develop visible veins and red rashes as blood pools in the outer layers of skin. They vomit blood, and they bleed from their internal organs. There is no consensus on how the virus hops from animals to humans. There is also no treatment. All hospital workers can do is try to maintain the body's integrity until the sickness has passed.


Now researchers have found at least one way to block the Ebola and Marburg viruses from entering the body. Cells in the mucosal parts of the body - the lining of the lungs, nose, and eyes, have a protein newly dubbed TIM-1. TIM-1 acts as a receptor for Ebola and Marburg. The viruses use the protein to bind to the cells. Researchers had suspected that Ebola first enters a body through the cells at the nose and eyes.

Scientists developed an antibody, ARD5, that blocks the TIM-1 receptor. To test if the antibody would truly block infection, researchers exposed cells that expressed the TIM-1 receptor to the Zaire Ebola virus. This is the strain of Ebola that was estimated to kill between eighty-three and ninety percent of people infected with it. They found that ARD5 blocks the virus from entering the cells.

This discovery does not eliminate the threat of Ebola. Ebola and Marburg can infect cells that don't have the TIM-1 receptor. Still, scientists believe that inhaling droplets that were coughed into the air by an infected patient and touching an infected surface, then touching one's face, are two of the major ways that these fevers spread. Being able to block the viruses at their bodily entry points could make the world a great deal safer.

Image Credit: University of Iowa - TIM-1 receptors are in green

Via the CDC and PNAS.


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Having worked with a number of Ebola and Marburg researchers, the typical descriptions, including the one you give, of people exploding like overfilled blood balloons applies to only a small minority of the cases. Most people just run really high fevers, and then die from disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC, pretty much just your circulatory system jamming up) leading to multiple organ failure. They might leak a little blood around the edges, but only if cut or seriously bruised. Nowhere near as exciting.