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Texas scientists develop universal treatment for full-blown Ebola

January 10, 2019

Texas scientists who developed an effective vaccine for the deadly Ebola virus are now reporting promising results with new medication to better treat full-blown cases of the disease.

In a laboratory study published this week, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston showed a single injection of two antibodies worked in monkeys infected with all strains of the disease, a significant advance on the multiple-dose, “one bug, one drug” approach used in injections in Africa.

“This medication would give doctors an advantage in situations where we don’t know which strain of Ebola is going to pop up next,” said Thomas Geisbert, a UTMB professor of microbiology and immunology and the study’s primary investigator. “The fear now, with all our eggs in one basket, is we’ll get burned with the outbreak of a strain there’s no protection against.”

The broad-spectrum injection stopped the disease’s course in 100 percent of monkeys infected with the Sudan and Bundibugyo strains and the particularly lethal Zaire strain, the source of the 2013-2016 West Africa outbreak and the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Monkeys are considered highly predictive of treatment effectiveness for tropical diseases such as Ebola.

Ebola is considered one of the world’s deadliest plagues. It caused about 11,500 deaths, more than 70 percent of those infected, in the 2013-2016 outbreak in West Africa, and another 377 so far in the Congo, where another 101 suspected cases are under investigation.

New medications are increasingly being used to treat the disease, most notably ZMapp, which was first deployed late in the West Africa outbreak. But those work only against the Zaire strain and all require multiple injections, a challenge in Third World settings. ZMapp must be given on three occasions, typically a few days apart, and by infusion which takes up to five hours each.

The new medication, known as MBP134, proved effective in monkeys with a single injection infused in a matter of minutes.

Had MBP134 been available in Africa in 2014, Geisbert says he thinks it could have effectively treated health-care workers there who contracted Ebola and had to be evacuated to the United States where they recovered. He said it is unclear if it could have saved patients like Thomas Duncan, the Liberian citizen who became the first case — and death — of the disease in the U.S. when his symptoms presented in 2014 during a visit to Dallas. By the time Duncan’s disease was recognized as Ebola, it was very far along.

MBP134 was developed by UTMB in conjunction with San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc., and a host of researchers in the U.S. and Canada.

The new results were reported Wednesday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.

Geisbert, who worked with a Canadian scientist to develop the Ebola vaccine currently being used in Africa, said production of MBP134 could be ramped up quickly whenever health officials want to use it. His team is currently researching whether the medication can be injected in the muscle rather than intravenously and whether a lower dose might be just as effective.

todd.ackerman@chron.com

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