Scientists have managed to rid six guinea pigs of Ebola using a treatment made from human antibodies. These antibodies were harvested from people who had received an experimental Ebola vaccine.
Ebola is a very infectious and often deadly viral disease that causes fever and internal bleeding. Outbreaks of the disease occur in various African countries, particularly the DRC, Uganda, Gabon, and South Sudan. During the world’s biggest outbreak, which occurred in West Africa between 2013 and 2016, as many as 11,000 people died.
Currently, there is no specific treatment or cure to tackle the disease; those affected are just given intravenous fluids and body salts to balance their electrolytes, while doctors attempt to maintain their oxygen levels and blood pressure.
Finding an effective cure for the disease would be hugely exciting. And that’s where the new research comes in. While it’s still extremely early days – it’s only been tested on a small number of non-human animals – the results do look promising.
The treatment devised by the researchers is based on antibodies – tiny proteins produced by our immune systems in response to an infection. Specific antibodies match specific diseases, so only someone exposed to Ebola, either via vaccination or infection, will carry Ebola antibodies in their blood.
To treat diseases, antibodies are usually taken from people who had an infection and survived. However, this can come with risks. Instead, the researchers collected antibodies from the blood of 11 volunteers in an experimental Ebola vaccine trial in Oxford, UK. They successfully obtained 82 antibodies and combined small numbers of them to form three different antibody cocktails.
One of these cocktails, made up of four antibodies, successfully cleared guinea pigs of the Ebola virus when administered three days after infection.
“Treatment of guinea pigs at day 3 of infection with the cross-reactive cocktail of four antibodies… resulted in 100 percent protection from a lethal [Ebola virus] infection, without weight loss or clinical signs,” the researchers wrote.
If further research shows this treatment to be both safe and effective in humans (a process that unfortunately takes many years), a cure for this devastating disease could be in sight. Next, the team plans on testing their treatment in ferrets.
The researchers hope their approach might also be used to combat other viral diseases in future.
"This study shows that a human vaccine trial is a golden opportunity to isolate antibodies that can effectively be used as a treatment," study authors Pramila Rijal and Alain Townsend of Oxford University wrote in a piece for The Conversation. "This may be important for tackling emerging infections like bird flu, MER, SARS and Chikungunya viruses, for which we have no established drugs or therapeutic antibodies."