Hope in the Wake of the Ebola Epidemic

March 8, 2018

The Western African Ebola epidemic claimed roughly 11,000 lives in just 21 months, leaving the world truly stunned by fear and grief. This unprecedented outbreak spread throughout the globe with deaths being reported in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, Mali, and even the United States. In the wake of Ebola’s devastation, the search for a cure has ignited with an astonishing vigor. By thoroughly exploring the molecular composition of blood samples from people with the Ebola virus, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a virology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, and Alhaji N'jai, a UWM research fellow from Sierra Leone, have effectively identified eleven biomarkers that distinguish the fatal form of the infection from its nonfatal expression. Their research, which has been remarked as being “the most thorough analysis yet of blood samples of patients infected with the Ebola virus,” has transformed the dream of finding a treatment into a possible reality.

Before his partnership with N'jai, Kawaoka’s research into the Ebola epidemic was at a standstill: given the uncontrollable nature of the outbreak, Kawaoka was unable to obtain blood samples of infected people. Fortunately, N'jai, who has ties with government officials of Sierra Leone, was able to coordinate a meeting with the country’s Parliament; the government granted N’jai and Kawaoka permission to set up a laboratory in a military hospital. There, they collected “29 blood samples from 11 patients who ultimately survived and nine blood samples from nine patients who died from the virus.” The specimens were immediately inactivated and shipped to UWM for testing; as the control group, blood samples from ten healthy individuals with no previous exposure to the Ebola virus were taken.

The Kerry Town Ebola Treatment Center near Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo credit: Carl Osmond

 In the samples of blood from people who perished from the infection, the researchers observed higher levels of viruses, pancreatic enzymes, and plasma cytokines, molecules involved in immune and stress responses. Additionally, the blood of those infected with the fatal form of the virus contained lower levels L-threonine, an amino acid, and vitamin D binding protein; their studies showed that these biomarkers accurately predicted which patient would succumb to the infection. In response to this finding, Kawaoka states, “We want to understand why those two compounds are discriminating factors. We might be able to develop a drug.”

Kawaoka’s and N’jai’s daring research into the mysteries of the Ebola virus is a beacon of hope in this dismal situation. Kawaoka states, "I hope another outbreak like this never occurs. But hopefully this rare opportunity to study Ebola virus in humans leads to fewer lives lost in the future." An universal feeling of helplessness accompanied the widespread Ebola epidemic; Kawaoka’s and N’jai’s discovery has reignited the globe’s determination and faith.

Camille Leoni

Camille Leoni is a staff writer for the Colonial Scope.

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