A strain of the deadly Ebola virus has been genetically engineered so that it is safe to study under ordinary laboratory conditions, potentially speeding up the development of effective vaccines and drugs.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found a way to disarm Ebola by confining it to a set of specialised cells, enabling scientists to safely study the virus.
Their results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month (22 January).
Ebola can currently only be studied under the strictest laboratory conditions, known as Biosafety Level 4, in a handful of laboratories around the world.
This hampers the basic research necessary to discover treatments for Ebola — there are currently none.
Taming the virus depended on its VP30 gene, which makes it capable of growing in host cells. Researchers engineered Ebola virus without the gene, rendering it incapable of growth.
"The altered virus does not grow in any normal cells," Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of pathobiological sciences at the US-based University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and the lead author of the paper, said in a press statement.
"We made cells that express the VP30 protein, and the virus can grow in those cells because the missing protein is provided by the cell."
Other than this one feature, it is identical to the wild virus.
The safe version is ideal for studies of basic biology, vaccine development and screening for anti-viral compounds, Kawaoka said.
The research only focused on one strain of the virus, from Zaire. The WHO announced that a new strain of the virus had been identified in an outbreak in Uganda in 2007.
Janusz Paweska, head of the Special Pathogens Unit at South Africa's National Health Laboratory Services, agrees that the research could speed up the development of treatments, though there is still a need for additional in vivo safety testing in primates, for example.
"If this development allows the Ebola virus to be more easily manipulated by researchers, thus increasing the possibilities for learning more about the virus and developing appropriate antivirals and/or vaccines, then we welcome this development," Gregory Härtl, a communications advisor at the WHO, told SciDev.Net.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, 1129 (2008)