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Notre Dame researcher works to develop Ebola treatment

| Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 1,400 people, according to the World Health Organization. Robert Stahelin, adjunct associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, said this outbreak is the largest to date, with a fatality rate of approximately 60 percent.

Ebola is one of two types of viruses in the the filovirus family, Stahelin said. The other is Marburg virus.

“Until recently, [filoviruses] were mostly thought to have been found in sub-Saharan Africa. So this particular outbreak is unique in the sense that it was the first in West Africa, with Liberia and Guinea and Sierra Leone,” he said. “There are five different types of Ebola that have been discovered so far. The strain in the current outbreak and probably the most well-known is called Ebola Zaire.”

Stahelin said the Ebola virus circumvents the immune system as it invades human cells.

“So it actually starts to halt the immune response in our bodies, which makes it more difficult to fight off the virus as it continues to replicate,” he said.

Patients who have contracted the virus can begin displaying symptoms between two and 21 days after infection, Stahelin said.

“A fever above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is common, as well as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, which then moves into more lethargy and pain,” he said.

Stahelin said doctors have been using compassionate use molecules, which are usually mixtures of antibodies that could neutralize the virus.

“There hasn’t been, to date, [a Food and Drug Administration] approval for a drug to treat or prevent Ebola infection,” he said. “There are also some promising vaccines on the horizon, maybe one that could be used for health care workers, for example, before they go treat the region of the outbreak. These things are still kind of in development.”

Stahelin said his research is focused on creating a drug to treat the Ebola virus, but it is still in the early stages.

“We’re trying to discover the best pathways to inhibit the viral replication in our cells,” he said. “So we’re working with small molecule drugs and antiviral drugs to figure out which mixture or which drug itself would be best at neutralizing the virus’ replication.”

Americans should not fear an Ebola virus outbreak in the United States, Stahelin said.

“Surely the virus can be brought anywhere on an airplane or a ship or something like that,” he said. “But the chances of a large-scale or even a small-scale outbreak in our country are an extremely minimal risk at this time. Now we have the World Health Organization and the state of emergency in [West Africa]. So if we do have a case of a patient coming here, rapid isolation is implemented and we have the facilities to deal with it. So it’s not really something that’s being considered a risk at this time.”

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About Catherine Owers

Senior News Writer Catherine Owers is a senior from New Orleans, Louisiana. She is studying English and Theology.

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