The often fatal Ebola virus has no proven cure or vaccine, but a new study that details how the virus disables a body's immune response could shed light on a possible treatment for the dreaded disease.
"We've known for a long time that infection with Ebola obstructs an important immune compound called interferon," said Dr. Gaya Amarasinghe of Washington University School of Medicine and lead investigator in a press release. "Now we know how Ebola does this, and that can guide the development of new treatments."
The study, which also involved researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, was published online Wednesday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.
When an infection hits the body, a compound called interferon sounds the alarm by sending an antiviral message straight into the nucleus of a cell, triggering an immune response. That messaging process, which researchers compared to an "emergency access lane" to the nucleus, is critical for beating viral infections.
Until now, scientists didn't exactly know how Ebola virus interfered with that process. But it turns out that the virus attaches a protein, which scientists labeled VP24, to interferon's antiviral message, which prevents it from penetrating the cell to trigger an immune response. In other words, Ebola obstructs the emergency access lane that would tell cells they need to gear up to fight an infection.
Christopher Basler, Ph.D., professor of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a co-investigator on the study, is hopeful that the study's findings will help scientists create drugs to treat ebola.
"If we can use the information in this study to develop drugs that would block the function of this viral protein, we can make the body's natural defense more effective and beat the infection that way," explained Basler to HuffPost in a phone interview. "Or we can combine the inhibitors of this viral protein with interferon and treat the infection that way."
Basler himself plans to use the findings to create a mutated version of the Ebola virus by disabling the VP24 protein, which he will then test in the laboratory to see if it weakens the virus' spread in any way.
Of course, targeting the VP24 protein is just one of many approaches scientists are taking to Ebola virus. Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc.'s ZMapp, the experimental drug donated to infected American aid workers and an unnamed West African nation, is a combination of antibodies that binds to the Ebola protein. Pharmaceutical companies Tekmira and Biocryst Pharmaceuticals also have Ebola treatment drugs in early development stages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Amarasinghe and Basler's study contributes to the field because it paves the way for yet another approach to combatting the virus.
"What makes Ebola virus different is that it attacks a body's immune system on multiple fronts," explained Amarasinghe to HuffPost. "There are different treatment windows for each modality, so having multiple methods would be really beneficial, depending on the type of outbreak."