Scientists at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg believe they've made a groundbreaking discovery in the treatment of one of the world's deadliest viruses.
A 12-person team led by Dr. Gary Kobinger has isolated antibodies to the Ebola virus and produced a drug that has been found to be 100 per cent effective -- in test animals -- when used within 24 hours of exposure to the virus. It's also been somewhat effective when used as late as 48 hours after the initial infection.
The current treatment for Ebola is effective only within 30 minutes of a person contracting the virus. So the Winnipeg lab's discovery represents a vast improvement in what is still a tiny window for saving someone who has been exposed to the virus.
"We are thrilled -- the entire team," said Kobinger, reached by telephone in Ottawa on Wednesday. The researchers' findings were published Wednesday by the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Kobinger's team has been working intensively on a treatment for Ebola for the past five years. The researchers believe their approach can also be used to treat other diseases.
The Winnipeg group isolated three different antibodies to Ebola and have developed an easy-to-manufacture treatment. The cocktail of antibodies is best used within 24 hours, followed by two successive injections, two days apart.
Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected persons. The deadly strains have been contained mainly to central Africa. Health-care workers have also frequently been infected while treating Ebola patients. A researcher in Europe was once accidentally exposed to Ebola while handling it in the lab.
Dr. Frank Plummer, chief science officer at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said the discovery has the potential to save many lives.
"It's just remarkable that this treatment works. We're really excited about it," he said.
Plummer said the discovery may also lead to a successful treatment for similar diseases, such as Marburg, a close relative of Ebola. "I think it shows the importance and benefits of investing in Canadian science."
Kobinger said his group's ultimate goal is to perfect the drug so it is effective in treating people within 72 hours of exposure to Ebola. That's important, because symptoms don't usually manifest themselves for two days.
The researcher said his team's discovery also has the potential to calm concerns over the use of Ebola as an agent in bioterrorism. "This will relieve some of this pressure (on authorities)," he said.
The discovery is a feather in the cap for the Winnipeg laboratory. Kobinger said the lab has attracted a great group of young scientists who have worked "extremely hard" on the project. "Several young investigators have made major contributions, and I cannot highlight that enough," he said.
It could take two to three years before the new treatment is properly tested and receives regulatory approval.
While Ebola does not naturally occur in Canada, there is always a small risk it could be imported into the country by an infected traveller.
Having a safe and effective treatment option at the ready is important to protect Canadians from that risk, scientists say.
The National Microbiology Laboratory is Canada's leading public health infectious disease laboratory and the only facility in Canada that is permitted to study and work with live hemorrhagic-fever viruses such as Ebola and other similarly highly infectious and deadly organisms.
Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq congratulated the Winnipeg-based researchers on their achievement Wednesday. "This groundbreaking discovery is a remarkable achievement and exemplifies the world-class research conducted here in Canada," she said in a statement.
What is Ebola?
Ebola is a deadly virus first identified in 1976 in Sudan and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). About 1,850 cases have been documented, with more than 1,200 deaths. Deadly strains of the virus are found in such central African nations as Congo, Gabon, Uganda, Sudan and Angola.
How is it transmitted?
The Ebola virus is transmitted by direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected persons. Health-care workers have frequently been infected while treating Ebola patients, through close contact without taking proper infection-control precautions.
What are the symptoms?
Ebola is characterized by sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is often followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function and, in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.
What is the treatment?
Currently, there is a drug treatment that is effective if provided within 30 minutes of contact with the virus. The new treatment developed in Winnipeg has been shown to be very effective within 24 hours of contact. There is no vaccine for Ebola.
-- sources: World Health Organization and National Microbiology Laboratory