A new treatment has successfully protected monkeys infected with Marburg virus, a disease with a course so similar to Ebola‘s that it’s impossible to clinically differentiate the two.
Though the technique has not yet been tested in people, the development has researchers noting that what’s helpful for Marburg could well be helpful for Ebola, which is now seeing its worst-ever outbreak, claiming more than 1,350 lives in West Africa.
“This technology may have potential for combatting Ebola,” says Thomas Geisbert, senior author of the study, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
In the new study, 16 macaques were infected with highly lethal doses of Marburg virus. The monkeys were treated with the experimental therapy, siRNA, at different times, ranging from 45 minutes to three days after infection. All 16 of the treated monkeys survived. A control group of macaques were similarly infected with Marburg, and all of them died by the eighth day.
Ebola and Marburg viruses are close and deadly kin. The viruses are the only two known members of the filovirus family, which can cause severe hemorrhagic fever and often death.
Both viruses spread to humans from animals, then spread among humans through contact with bodily fluids. Both are marked by severe bleeding from orifices, and neither has an approved vaccine or drug for treatment.
An experimental treatment for Ebola called ZMapp leapt ahead of normal research and approval processes when two American health workers and a Spanish priest were treated experimentally, before any human trials were conducted.
The two experimental treatments follow different biological routes. ZMapp is composed of three monoclonal antibodies from the tobacco plant that bind to the protein of the Ebola virus.
The other technology is an siRNA, or “small interfering RNA,” consisting of small pieces of RNA that can inhibit protein production. This interferes with how the virus grows once it gets into cells.
“Combining successful therapies will likely extend the treatment window, if these different approaches can work well together,” says Gaya Amarasinghe, a biochemist at Washington University in St. Louis.