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Ebola: Are Treatments, Vaccines on the Horizon?

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 8, 2014.

Aug. 5, 2014 -- An experimental serum grown in specially modified tobacco leaves made headlines this week when it was given to two Americans stricken with Ebola.

The ZMapp treatment had never before been tested in humans. Although both Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who became ill on aid missions in Liberia, are reportedly improving and have been brought back to the United States, it’s unclear how much of a role the serum may be playing in their recovery.

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Experimental Ebola Serum

Ebola: Are Treatments, Vaccines on the Horizon?


Before the serum could be used on a wider scale, it would have to go through the FDA’s drug approval process.

FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Yao says in an e-mail to WebMD that the agency couldn't comment on specific products. But she says the FDA is involved in an inter-agency working group “looking to facilitate and accelerate development of potential investigation treatments for Ebola.”

“Currently, there are only experimental Ebola treatments in the earliest stages of development,” Yao says. “Even though a drug is not approved right now, the FDA can still provide access to potential products through other [avenues], such as through an emergency Investigational New Drug (IND) application. The FDA stands ready to work with companies and investigators treating these patients who are in dire need of treatment.”

Other New Hopes

The companies involved in other treatments and vaccines in the development pipeline say they need funding.

“We’ve approached big pharma. They don’t really view Ebola as a commercial product, so they’re not really interested,” says John Eldridge, chief scientific officer for Profectus BioSciences in Baltimore. The company has developed a vaccine that, in a single injected dose, works “extremely well” in certain monkeys against Ebola and Marburg viruses, both hemorrhagic fevers, he says.

Still, he says he’s instructed his laboratory group to proceed under the assumption “that someone’s going to step up to the plate and fund the manufacture of this stuff.”

The vaccine uses a weakened version of a type of virus that doesn't make people sick. A molecule from the surface of the Ebola virus is inserted into the weakened virus. After the vaccine is injected, the virus carries the Ebola molecule to cells, triggering an immune response.

Eldridge says the Ebola vaccine has been shown to prevent infection in monkeys, as well as treat them if they’ve been exposed to Ebola. But he says the tests on monkeys exposed to Ebola used a virus grown in the lab, which becomes less powerful over time. The logical next step would be to test the vaccine in humans, Eldridge says -- but his company needs $3 million to make it according to FDA specifications for human testing.

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