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Monday, 31 July, 2000, 20:52 GMT 21:52 UK
Breakthrough on Ebola
Ebola medical workers
Ebola has caused many deaths
Scientists have made a discovery which could pave the way for treatments for the deadly Ebola disease.

The researchers have uncovered a protein produced by the Ebola virus that disrupts the cells that line the blood vessel walls.

They believe this protein could be responsible for the severe and often deadly bleeding experienced by patients who are infected by Ebola.

We have been able to define the major Ebola virus gene that kills cells, and have provided a molecular target for potential new antiviral drugs and vaccines

Dr Gary Nabel, US National Institutes of Health

The researchers, from the US National Institutes of Health and Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, believe that blocking the action of the protein might be one way to treat Ebola infection.

Ebola, found in several African countries, is marked by fever and bleeding in the eyes and gums. It is fatal in up to 90% of cases.

A 1995 outbreak of Ebola in Kikwit, Congo, killed 245 people.

At present, there is no cure and no treatment, and researchers are trying to find out where the fever, named after the region in Zaire where it was first identified, came from.

They have also been trying to find out why the virus causes such devastating effects.

Dangerous protein

Lead researcher Dr Gary Nabel, of the NIH Vaccine Research Centre, said: "We have been able to define the major Ebola virus gene that kills cells, and have provided a molecular target for potential new antiviral drugs and vaccines."

Dr Nabel's team placed a protein produced by the Ebola virus into human and pig arteries.

It broke down the endothelial cells which line the blood vessels and made them leak.

But when they altered the protein slightly, it did not have this effect.

Hope for vaccine

A related virus, known as the Reston strain after the Virginia lab where it was first isolated, also failed to damage blood vessels.

This could explain why Reston is not fatal in humans.

The researchers said if scientists could find a way to make the virus less likely to destroy cells, it might give the body time to fight off the infection.

Dr Nabel said: "Once we know the specific interaction, which cellular proteins are interacting, we can begin to look for drugs that block that interaction.

"They might be new drugs that you could screen or they might even be existing drugs."

Dr Nabel said the work might also pave the way for a vaccine against the virus, and better treatments for similar viruses such as those that cause Lassa fever, mumps, measles and flu.

The research is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

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16 Aug 99 | Medical notes
Ebola and other tropical viruses
05 Aug 99 | Health
Ebola cure hope
15 Oct 99 | Health
Clues on Ebola's origin
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