How to Trick the Ebola Virus

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As the Ebola outbreak continues to spread throughout West Africa and some U.S. hospitals test sick patients for the virus, researchers are hard at work looking for ways to trick the highly-contagious, highly lethal organism.

They are using tools of molecular biology to mimic or interfere with the virus to make vaccines or treatments for the next outbreak. Many of these drug candidates are still stuck in the laboratory, pending federal approval and private money.

Watch "Ebola: Are We Next?" on Thursday, Sep. 18, starting at 9/8c on both Discovery Channel and Discovery Fit & Health.

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The evolving and sporadic nature of Ebola has made it tough for researchers to follow the well-worn path for drug development, according to Justin Julander, research associate professor of virology at Utah State University, who is working on ways to use animal models to test drugs for Ebola, yellow fever and other super-diseases.

“The outbreaks are so random, you may have a huge problem,” Julander said. “It’s difficult to plan a clinical trial for something like Ebola.”

Here’s a rundown of current research:

Tobacco plant monoclonal antibodies The two American aid workers struck with Ebola in Liberia received emergency doses of a brand-new, untested drug made inside tobacco plants, according to Bloomberg News. The drug is made by San Diego-based Mapp Biopharmaceuticals. Genes for the antibodies against Ebola are combined with genes for a natural tobacco virus. The tobacco plants are then infected and the infection results in the production of new antibodies. The plant is ground up and the antibody is extracted.

Horse-killer Vesicular stomatis virus (VSV) affects horses and cattle and is spread by flies. But researchers are using it to deliver an antibody for Ebola’s surface coating. This vaccine is being developed by Canadian health authorities and a New York firm. It has protected monkeys in animal tests against the same strain of Ebola now in West Africa.

RNA interference Ebola blocks the body’s own antibodies, such as interferon. The drug BCX4430 blocks Ebola’s own messenger RNA from replicating. The drug was initially designed for bioterrorism outbreaks and its early development is funded by the U.S. military and produced by Tekmira.