health

Scientists announce groundbreaking discovery in treating Ebola virus

June 14, 2012
Author: Winnipeg Free Press

Scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg believe they’ve made a groundbreaking discovery in the treatment of the deadly Ebola virus.

They’ve developed a drug treatment that has been found to be 100 per cent effective — in tests on animals — when used within 24 hours of contact with the disease. That’s a vast improvement over the current treatment that is only effective when used within 30 minutes.

"We are thrilled — the entire team," said Dr. Gary Kobinger, the lab’s lead researcher, when reached by telephone in Ottawa today.

The researchers’ findings are being published this afternoon by the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Kobinger heads a team of about a dozen scientists at the lab who have been working intensively on a treatment for the Ebola virus for the past five years. Their expectation is that the approach they used with Ebola can also be used to treat other deadly viruses.

The Winnipeg group isolated antibodies to the virus in mice and developed an easy-to-manufacture treatment. While extremely effective if used 24-hours after contact, it has also been shown to be effective up to 48 hours after infection.

Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected persons. The deadly strains have been contained mainly to central Africa. Health care workers have also frequently been infected while treating Ebola patients.

The goal, once the drug receives regulatory approval, is to stockpile the drug for both patients and health workers in areas where it has emerged. There currently is no vaccination to prevent infection of the Ebola virus.

The Zaire strain of Ebola is one of the most aggressive in the world. Up to 90 per cent of those infected die within days of exposure. The World Health Organization says there have been more than 1,850 documented cases of the virus, which was first identified in Sudan and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1976. More than 1,200 have died of it.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq congratulated the Winnipeg-based researchers on their achievement. "This groundbreaking discovery is a remarkable achievement and exemplifies the world-class research conducted here in Canada," she said in a press release.

Dr. Frank Plummer, chief science officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said Canadian researchers have seen first hand the terrible effects of the Ebola virus in Africa. "This discovery should pave the way for the development of a new drug that has the potential to save many lives," he said in a statement.

While Ebola does not naturally occur in Canada, there is always a small risk that it could be imported into the country by an infected traveller. Having a safe and effective treatment option at the ready is important to protect Canadians from that risk, scientists say.

The National Microbiology Laboratory is Canada’s leading public health infectious disease laboratory and the only facility in Canada that is permitted to study and work with live haemorrhagic fever viruses such as Ebola and other similarly highly infectious and deadly organisms.

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"This groundbreaking discovery is a remarkable achievement and exemplifies the world-class research conducted here in Canada." -Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq