Petri Dish: Research community stepping up efforts to learn about Ebola virus
Special to the Daily
In addition to serving as chief scientific officer for Keystone Symposia, I am also the editor-in-chief of the international journal Viral Immunology that is published 10 times a year by Mary Ann Liebert publishers. The journal publishes current, cutting-edge studies from research scientists all over the world. In addition, the journal occasionally publishes special issues focusing on a specific topic. In this regard, last February I commissioned two prominent scientists to guest-edit an issue on a class of viruses called Filoviruses, the most familiar of which is Ebola. Eerily, just a month later, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa became international news. The focus of the special issue was subsequently changed to address Ebola virus disease exclusively.
Today, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has resulted in more than 13,000 cases and approximately 5,000 deaths. While the disease epicenter has been Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, there have been other travel-related cases in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal, Spain and the United States. The challenge of dealing with an Ebola outbreak in poor countries with minimal health services has proven to be especially great. Success is hampered by the fact that there are no approved vaccines or treatments for Ebola. The urgency of the situation in Africa has driven the research community to significantly increase its efforts to understand this deadly disease and to accelerate the development of anti-Ebola drugs and vaccines.
The special Viral Immunology issue on Ebola is guest-edited by Drs. Jeffery Hogan (Department of Infectious Diseases, University of Georgia) and Bill Dowling (Biodefense Research Resources Section, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases) and reveals some fascinating insights into the virus and its interaction with the human body. One article’s particularly significant finding is that many individuals in West Africa showed evidence of having already been exposed to Ebola prior to the 2014 outbreak. In fact, one report suggests that as many as one in five individuals showed evidence of prior exposure to the virus even though there had been no recent outbreaks in that region. This suggests that the virus may have been lurking unrecognized in the human population for some time prior to the major current outbreak. There had previously been evidence that individuals in some parts of Central Africa exhibited prior Ebola exposure, also in the range of about one in five individuals in some areas. In both studies, the scientists analyzed blood samples for the presence of antibodies specific for Ebola. Antibodies are proteins that are elicited during infection that are able to latch onto the Ebola virus and assist in its destruction. After clearance of the virus, these antibodies persist in the blood for months or even years, serving as a marker for past exposure to the virus.
How could the disease have gone undetected prior to the current outbreak? One possibility is that infections may have escaped detection by health surveillance because they resulted in symptoms (fever, vomiting, etc.) very similar to those of other diseases endemic in that part of the world, such as malaria. But this doesn’t explain why these earlier exposures didn’t cause a major outbreak. Perhaps there was a milder form of the virus circulating that caused asymptomatic infections. Alternatively, individuals might have been exposed to dead forms of the virus present in droppings from infected wildlife, such as fruit bats (or perhaps even from consuming infected bushmeat). This could provide sufficient exposure to the virus to elicit an antibody response, but would not in itself cause disease.
Regardless of the source, evidence for the presence of preexisting immunity to Ebola raises the question whether the individuals are resistant to subsequent Ebola virus infection or have a higher survival rate after infection. This still needs to be determined. Another key question is what factors contributed to the sudden emergence of the extremely virulent Ebola virus that is now causing so much suffering in West Africa. Hopefully, further research will soon answer these questions.
Research into Ebola virus disease is extremely dangerous. Sadly, two of the authors of the paper mentioned died of Ebola prior to publication. However, the hope is that their article, and other articles published in the upcoming issue of Viral Immunology, will advance our understanding of this dreadful disease and help terminate the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
If you would like to learn more about Ebola and other viral diseases, you might be interested in attending a community panel discussion at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge on Tuesday, Jan. 13 at 7:30 p.m. with several scientists from Keystone Symposia’s “Viral Immunity” conference.
David L. “Woody” Woodland Ph.D. is the chief scientific officer of nonprofit Silverthorne-based Keystone Symposia on Molecular and Cellular Biology. He can be reached at (970) 262-1230 ext. 131 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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