Could Zambian bats hold the key to curing Ebola?

The current outbreak of Ebola virus, which has taken the lives of 8,000 West Africans, has been tracked to bats in Guinea that may have transmitted the virus to the first human victim of the disease. Now tantalizing new research suggests that bats may actually lead scientists to a cure for Ebola.

A team led by researchers at Hokkaido University in Japan have discovered that many straw-colored fruit bats--which migrate yearly from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Zambia--carry high numbers of Ebola antibodies, strongly suggesting that the animals come in contact with the virus but never become infected. The research has not yet been published, but the scientists involved tell Bloomberg that the bats' innate ability to fight off Ebola may be useful in developing antibody-based treatments.

"We cannot categorically say that the cure for the Ebola virus disease lies in the bats, but we could say that surely the bats possess certain characteristics that enable them to survive the infection," said Aaron Mweene, a professor at the University of Zambia's veterinary school in an email interview with Bloomberg.

Janusz Paweska

To fully understand why the bats don't become infected with Ebola, further research must be done, Mweene said, which would require infecting a population of bats in highly secure bio-containment laboratories. Janusz Paweska of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg tells Bloomberg that plans are in place to expand bat colonies for "experimental infection studies."

Researchers in Africa are also boosting their bat surveillance efforts, attaching GPS tracking units to the animals to try to obtain information about where they're coming in contact with Ebola. This could help determine where the virus originated, according to Bloomberg.

There are already studies underway in Guinea of experimental drugs derived from the blood of Ebola survivors. And myriad organizations are stepping up to answer the call for better treatments and diagnostic tools. In November, Merck ($MRK) grabbed the rights to NewLink Genetics' ($NLNK) Ebola vaccine, which was recently rushed into Phase III testing. Cepheid ($CPHD) raised $3.3 million from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop its rapid diagnostic test for Ebola.

The Gates Foundation is also backing efforts to test the usefulness of blood from Ebola survivors as a treatment and to boost production of Mapp Biopharmaceutical's antibody-based drug to fight the disease. And in October, Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) said it would devote $200 million to fast-track an Ebola vaccine into clinical trials.

- here's the Bloomberg story

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