Scientists discover how Ebola enters human cells

A team of scientists recently determined how the Ebola virus gains entry into human cells, offering a potential new approach to the development of antiviral therapeutics against the deadly bioterror threat.

Although natural outbreaks of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever are rare, it is considered one of the deadliest diseases to affect humans. More than 1,200 people have died from a total of only 1,850 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified the Ebola virus as a category A bioterrorism agent. There is no treatment to stop EHF, only the symptoms can be treated.

Until a recent study by a team of researchers from Whitehead and a group of collaborators from Harvard Medical School, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, there was an extremely limited knowledge of how the Ebola virus gained entry into a host cell in order to replicate.

The team identified the Niemann-Pick C1 protein located in host cells as crucial to the process. They said that new antiviral therapeutics that target the structure of host cells could be more effective in treating EHF.

"Right now, people make therapeutics to inactivate the pathogen itself. But the problem is that pathogens can quickly change and escape detection and elimination by the immune system," former Whitehead Fellow Thijn Brummelkamp said. "Here we get a good idea of the host genes that are needed for the pathogen to enter the cell for replication. Perhaps by generating therapeutics against those host factors, we would have a more stable target for antiviral drugs."

The study, which was conducted with the support of the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Army and the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds and a Burroughs Welcome Award, appears in the journal Nature.

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