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SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers at the University of Utah have identified a part of the Ebola virus that can potentially be treated and/or prevented with drugs.
And while those drugs have yet to be discovered, the latest findings will help direct further development of pharmaceuticals to fight any of the five known strains of the Ebola virus.
"We are not far enough along to intervene in the current outbreak, but we are highly motivated to be prepared for the next one," said Dr. Michael Kay, a professor of biochemistry at the U.'s School of Medicine. He said the Zaire strain of the infection circulating throughout Africa and other parts of the world has already traveled beyond what it was once thought it could and shows "no signs of abating."
"This could get much worse before it gets better," Kay said, calling the current Ebola epidemic "unprecedented."
As of Tuesday, the latest spread of Ebola had reached more than 8,043 people in West Africa and has resulted in travel-related cases in Spain and the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency reports that 4,461 cases are confirmed, Ebola and of those, 3,866 people have died from the infection, including one Liberian national who died Wednesday in Texas.
Kay said his work is in earlier stages than others that are closer making their way to the market.
One developmental drug, called ZMapp, has been used up in treating just six cases of Ebola in the current epidemic. It was available in only limited supply for testing purposes, and because it is a tobacco plant-based antibody, Kay said it would be months before manufacturers could come up with more. ZMapp's effectiveness, he said, is also unknown, as it is hard to track in compassionate use situations.
This could get much worse before it gets better.
–Professor Michael Kay, University of Utah School of Medicine
The current strain of Ebola, Kay said, also has a less-than-50 percent survival rate, "making it hard to figure out if the drug worked or not."
"Our fears have been proven that it can get out of control," he said.
While the U. research was on the books a few years prior to the recent epidemic, Kay said the timing of the outbreak is good and "lends urgency to our project."
Funding that has been hard to come by for an illness that once wasn't much of a worry, he said, now has the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administartion and other governing agencies throughout the world.
"We knew at some point that Ebola would strike in a heavily populated urban area and would spread in a way that it hasn't before. Previous outbreaks have been in rural areas that are easier to control," Kay said. "Now that it has happened, it definitely adds urgency to push the drug target and develop a drug based on it."
The development of an effective anti-Ebola agent to protect against natural outbreaks and potential bioterrorism exposure is an urgent global health need and a number of promising experimental drugs are being aggressively advanced to clinical trials to address the current crisis as it threatens to spread.
"There are a lot of different strategies," said Debra Eckert, a research assistant at the U. and assistant professor of biochemistry. "Our strategy is unique."
The U. team, which has patented its process, has produced a molecule that mimics a critical region of the virus — the portion that controls entry into the human host cell, initiating infection. The designed peptide is suitable for testing all potential drugs, as it is the same protein molecule found in all strains of the Ebola virus.
Eckert said the U. finding could prove "very pertinent" to future outbreaks.
Researchers at the U. are already collaborating with a local drug development company, Navigen, and have conducted tests with the actual Ebola virus that is safely housed at the U.S Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Washington, D.C.
Kay, who has a penchant for studying viruses, said a viable treatment for Ebola that results from the U. study could be just a couple of years away.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was published in this week's online edition of Protein Science.
Ebola is an infectious and typically fatal disease marked by fever and internal bleeding. It is spread by contact with bodily fluids of an infected person.
While the recent Ebola outbreak began in Guinea in December 2013, it has spread to epidemic proportions, infecting more people than have been infected since the viruses were discovered in 1976, according to the World Health Organization.
The U. lab has previously extensively studied HIV and is working on projects that include respiratory syncytial virus and other viruses that profoundly impact developing countries.
As a medical school student in the '90s, Kay said he was "affected" by outbreaks of small pox, HIV and the Spanish flu.
"I had a front-row seat to the explosive potential of viral infections and how few tools we have for treating those viral infections," he said. The experience has directed his career and he said he wants his research to have an impact.
Contributing: Richard Piatt