US researchers develop new tool in search for Ebola drug

Scientists have identified the part of the virus that controls entry to its human host.
Biochemists at the University of Utah in the US have copied part of the protein in Ebola that controls entry of the virus into the human host cell, initiating infection. It could provide an important tool for testing possible drug treatments.

"If you block this region, you will block the entry of the virus into the cells…and prevent infection," Michael Kay, a physician and professor of biochemistry and one of the senior authors of the study, told reporters.

Perhaps more importantly, the region of the protein is common to all strains of the virus, suggesting it is a useful drug target when looking for a universal treatment for all current strains of the disease as well as future mutations of the virus.

"This is step one toward developing a universal drug, but it’s an important step," says Kay.

After discovering the key area of the virus, the scientists engineered an artificial version of it called a peptide mimic.

Kay and his colleagues, along with scientists at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, have been working on the discovery for years. The team had previously done something similar with HIV, and adapted the approach to Ebola research.

While the challenge now is to find a drug that blocks the protein, if found it should have broader application that current experimental drugs that generally target only one of Ebola's five species.

"The current growing epidemic demonstrates the need for effective broad-range Ebola virus therapies," says Dr. Tracy R. Clinton, lead author on the study. "Importantly, viral sequence information from the epidemic reveals rapid changes in the viral genome, while our target sequence remains the same. Therefore, our target will enable the discovery of drugs with the potential to treat any future epidemic, even if new Ebola virus strains emerge."

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