By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD
Since the start of the outbreak last March, Ebola virus has already taken more than 8.000 lives and infected more than 21.200 people, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The panic raised from this situation rushed the testing of therapies to stop the outbreak and the research on the Ebola virus has seen a rebirth. Some research groups that have been working in this field for a long time can now openly ask for help. One of these groups is the one lead by Dr. Erica Ollman Shaphire at The Scripps Research Institute, California. In 2013 they published in Cell an analysis of the different conformations of Ebola VP40 (Viral Protein 40) aka the shape-shifting “transformer” protein. They reported 3 different conformations of this protein, and how this variety allows it to achieve multiple functions in the viral replication circle. This Ebola virus protein along with the glycoprotein would be used as target for anti viral research. In order to find new anti-virals, their approach is an in-silico scrutiny of thousands of compounds, using viral protein crystal structures in the in silico docking to find leads that may be tested in the lab as inhibitors. IBM is already helping them in this project, generating the World Community Grid to find drugs through the Outsmart Ebola Together project. Here is where you can start helping, as this project involves a huge amount of data and computing time, they need volunteers that can donate their devices spare computing time (android, computer, kindle fire, etc) to generate a faster virtual supercomputer than can accelerate the discover of new potential drugs. This approach has been shown to be successful for other diseases like HIV and malaria, so you are welcome to join the fight against Ebola virus: https://secure.worldcommunitygrid.org/research/oet1/overview.do.
If you do not have any of these devices (I hope you are enjoying the public library free computers), you can still help Dr. Shapire quest to discover new therapies against Ebola. Her group is now “working to support the salary of a computer scientist to help process the data we are generating with the world community grid” as she describes it. To help identify the most promising drug leads for further testing you can donate money on: www.crowdrise.com/cureebola.
Other groups that were mostly working on other viruses, like Flu, also joined the race to discover efficient therapies. For example, last month, the Emerging Microbes and Infections journal of the Nature Publishing Group published the identification of 53 drugs that are potential inhibitors of the Ebola virus. One of the authors of this paper is Dr. Carles Martínez-Romero, from Dr. Adolfo García-Sastre’s lab in the Department of Microbiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In the study, Dr. Martínez-Romero and collaborators described how they narrowed the search from 2.816 FDA approved compounds to 53 potential antiviral drugs. This high-throughput screening was possible thanks to the use of the Ebola viral-like particle (VLP) entry assay. This allows studying Ebola viral entry without using the ”real”, full replicative virus. These 53 compounds blocked the entry of Ebola VLPs into the cell. Understanding how these market-ready compounds can inhibit Ebola entry and its infectious cycle will pave the way for a new generation of treatments against Ebola virus-associated disease.
Dr. Martínez-Romero had an early interest in science; “Since I was a child, I showed great interest in biological sciences and a great desire to question and discover. This led me to pursue my studies in Biotechnology in order to become a successful researcher.”Viruses are very interesting to me because, although they are not strictly living organisms, they are as old as life itself. Even though they are the origin of many illnesses in mammals and other organisms alike, we are tightly interconnected with viruses and they will continue shaping our evolution throughout the years to come.
I also asked him about advice to his fellow researchers, and he answered: “There is a famous quote of Dr. Albert Einstein: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called Research”. As postdocs and researchers in general, we are constantly pursuing new hypotheses. It is a very arduous path with its ups and downs but full of rewards and new challenges ahead.” About the future of the antiviral research, he keeps a positive view: “Several antiviral therapies are being developed to combat the current Ebola outbreak, such as antibody cocktails (Zmapp), antiviral drugs, and specific Ebola vaccines. Together with re-purposing screens like the one we published, a combination of therapeutic drugs can be used to obtain better antiviral strategies against the Ebola virus.”