Is a Treatment for Ebola on the Way? - Pacific Standard

Is a Treatment for Ebola on the Way?

Researchers find the disease may have long-term effects on the brain, but a treatment may be on the way.
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A Doctors Without Borders health worker in protective clothing carries a child suspected of having Ebola in the treatment center on October 5, 2014, in Paynesville, Liberia. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

A Doctors Without Borders health worker in protective clothing carries a child suspected of having Ebola in the treatment center on October 5, 2014, in Paynesville, Liberia. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The latest Ebola virus outbreak, which began in West Africa in 2014 and wasn't declared over until just a few months ago, killed thousands of people and infected thousands more. For those who survived, a new study finds, there may be lasting neurological effects. But there's hope for the future too: Another study suggests researchers may have found a new, more effective way to treat the disease.

Ebola is popularly known to be an unstoppable killer, but as recent outbreaks (not to mention a handful of cases in the United States) have shown, it is, in fact, a survivable disease. It's less known what the long-term effects of Ebola infection might be, though the high fevers and hemorrhaging that accompany Ebola suggest it could have lasting consequences.

A study suggests researchers may have found a new, more effective way to treat the disease.

Researchers have now found, as Lauren Bowen and her colleagues will report at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in April, signs of lasting consequences on the brain and other parts of the nervous system. The researchers, working as part of the ongoing PREVAIL study, followed 82 patients who'd been treated for Ebola and survived. At follow-up visits six months after treatment, nearly all of those survivors experienced some kind of neurological problem. The most common effects: headache, depressed mood, muscle pain, and memory loss. Half the patients suffered far worse symptoms, including hallucinations, meningitis, and coma. Other common symptoms included abnormal eye movements, tremors, and sensations, suggesting Ebola had affected the peripheral nervous system as well as certain parts of the brain.

But there's good news too. Right now, the best way to treat Ebola is about the same as what you'd do for a really, really bad case of the flu. It's a matter of intravenous fluids, maintaining oxygen levels and blood pressure, and preventing other infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But there are some experimental treatments out there, one of them based on antibodies from an Ebola survivor.

Davide Corti, John Misasi, and several dozen colleagues first collected blood samples for two survivors, dubbed S1 and S2, following a 1995 Ebola outbreak in Kikwit, Zaire. S1, who'd been more severely ill than S2, had maintained high levels of antibodies that "displayed potent virus neutralizing activity" in preliminary tests—in other words, it killed Ebola. After isolating and cloning two especially effective antibodies, Corti, Misasi, and their team infected four rhesus macaque monkeys with Ebola and then treated three of them with the cloned antibodies. Sadly, the fourth monkey died of the disease 10 days later, but none of those treated with antibodies came down with any symptoms—indeed, they showed no signs of infection at all.

A follow up with four additional macaques showed that the treatment worked even if it was given five days after infection, suggesting it could be a realistic treatment.

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Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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