Ebola Virus Tamed for Beneficial Use
Killer can be adapted to treat lung diseases
MONDAY, Dec. 30, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- The Ebola virus, which authorities worry could become a terrorist weapon, may also work as a sheep in wolf's clothing.
The outer shell of the deadly virus can be adapted to carry beneficial medicine into the body, helping to fight such diseases as cystic fibrosis, according to a study in the current Journal of Virology.
By simply removing the harmful virus from inside the Ebola protein shell and replacing it with a benevolent retrovirus -- which could help repair damaged cells -- Ebola becomes friend rather than foe.
The innovation is also important because it allows researchers to introduce retroviruses into the body through the airways rather than the blood.
"We are adding a new tool to the gene-therapy toolbox," says David Sanders, an associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University.
"Up to this point, modified retroviruses could only be injected," he says. "Now we have a potential method of treating lung conditions with an inhaled retrovirus that is more easily produced in the lab than the version found in nature."
Ebola is one of the most deadly viruses known -- killing 50 percent to 80 percent of those exposed to it -- although there hasn't been a widespread outbreak. According to the World Health Organization, more than 800 people have died of Ebola since it was first identified in Sudan in 1976.
Sanders and his team, which includes a researcher from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are studying Ebola partly to find a cure for cystic fibrosis, but also to understand the structure of the virus to prepare for a possible outbreak. But their research has also led them to another discovery about the origin of the virus.
In analyzing the structure of the Ebola viruses, Sanders' team noticed that they shared a common structure with bird viruses. That's a surprise, since only humans and monkeys were thought to carry the virus. It implies that birds may also carry the virus, knowledge that could help scientists prevent its spread.
"The major concern now is some sort of use of Ebola as a bioterror weapon. Trying to identify and eliminate sources of Ebola in the wild can help deal with that," Sanders says.
That research was also published in the Journal of Virology. But the study about using the Ebola shell to fight disease appears to have a more immediate application. Ebola is very good at entering the body through the lungs. Once modified, it allows scientists to repair damaged cells in the lungs and possibly other tissues.
"Dr. Sanders is trying to exploit methods for getting genetic material into cells that the virus has already evolved to do. Think of it as trying to adapt the 'good parts' of the Ebola virus for a therapeutic application," says Dr. Paul McCray, a professor of pediatrics and pulmonary allergies at the University of Iowa.
The adapted virus may soon help treat cystic fibrosis, which affects 30,000 people in the United States. It may also help fight other diseases. The retrovirus would work by replacing damaged DNA in lung cells with new copies of working DNA.
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