The most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa took the region by storm, causing more than 29,000 deaths and a 40% case-fatality rate.
If there’s anything the recent outbreak has brought to light, it’s the need for scientists and pharmaceutical companies to develop much-needed treatments and therapies for the disease. But because pharmaceutical companies typically develop drugs based on need and profitability, they are disincentivized to develop therapies for a disease like Ebola. The financial return on a treatment or vaccine would be too low to merit an initial investment.
But scientists remain undeterred and have started to hunt for clues in the blood of Ebola survivors. When we get sick from a virus or bacterial agent, our bodies generate antibodies—proteins that help fight infection—to combat it. These antibodies are able to recognize a part of the microbe, so when the two bind, the antibody effectively ‘neutralizes’ the bug and prevents it from wrecking further havoc on the body, recruiting the immune system to fight off the disease. Might there be something different about Ebola survivors that allowed them to recover?
Recently, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston found antibodies in the blood of survivors that can fight multiple species of the Ebola virus. Specifically, these antibodies are monoclonal, meaning that they are produced by only one parent cell. Fortunately, monoclonal antibodies can be produced cheaply in a lab. This work suggests that there are common elements in different strains of the Ebola virus that a cocktail of antibodies could help treat. In other words, these antibodies could be a “silver bullet” for Ebola—a disease that currently has no vaccine or treatment.
However, the idea of using monoclonal antibodies as therapies for the treatment of disease is not novel. Since the discovery of the production of monoclonal antibodies in 1975 by two biologists, Georges Köhler and César Milstein, drug companies have recognized the potential of antibodies to treat anything from infectious disease to cancer. After the initial discovery, Milstein spoke at the Royal Society Wellcome Foundation Lecture:
Basic and applied research may appear to be well defined at times. How often have we heard someone saying, ‘Oh, no! My research is of no practical use to anyone?’ And then there is this shattering experience that what seemed quite clearly basic, with no possible application, became very much applied?
That these monoclonal antibodies could be the key to successfully treating something as deadly as Ebola is truly remarkable. Not to mention in the global community’s best interest.