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Infection biologists intensify Ebola research

Researchers at the German Primate Center are working on projects to restrain the virus. The current strain features several unstudied mutations.
[Translate to English:] Ein Ebola-Virus unter dem Mikroskop. Infektionsbiologen des DPZ intensivieren ihre Forschung zu dem Virus. Foto: Studio_3321/Shutterstock
Das Foto zeigt eine Frau im Labor
[Translate to English:] Eine Infektionsbiologin des DPZ versorgt während der Arbeit mit Surrogat-Viruspartikeln Zellkulturen mit frischem Kulturmedium. Foto: Steuer

The unexpectedly severe outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa clarifies the importance of intensive research on an antiviral agent. According to the World Health Organization WHO more than 13,000 people had been infected and nearly 5,000 have died by early November in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Researchers at the German Primate Center (DPZ) are therefore intensifying their research on the Ebola virus. In cooperation with other scientists, Stefan Pöhlmann, Head of the Infection Biology Unit at the DPZ, will examine basic mechanisms of the entry of the virus into host cells within a consortium which is coordinated by the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF). The German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) funds the consortium named EBOKON. With the support of a total of 2.3 million Euros, the projects are funded until the end of 2015 by the BMBF. The DPZ will receive 170 000 Euros for research purposes.

"The alarming dimension of the epidemic makes it clear that in order to effectively combat future outbreaks, Ebola has to be researched more intensively", says Stefan Pöhlmann. "Both the basic research as well as reinforcement in the development and testing of antiviral agents and vaccines must be pursued". Scientists of the Infection Biology Unit will do research on the glycoprotein of the Ebola virus. This glycoprotein allows the virus access to its host cells in the body. Therefore, it is also a potential target for antiviral intervention: If the virus can no longer infect host cells, it can no longer multiply.

In comparison to earlier researched strains, the virus which is currently circulating in West Africa, has multiple amino acid exchanges in the glycoprotein. The affects that the exchanges have on the biological properties of the Ebola virus is unclear and should therefore be researched.Clarification as to whether the changes lead to the fact that the virus can penetrate mucous membranes particularly well and whether the progression of the Ebola epidemic indicates the emergence of viruses that can spread more efficiently within a population is particularly necessary. In addition, substances that inhibit the glycoprotein-mediated entry into host cells are planned to be identified. Stefan Pöhlmann and his team do not examine Ebola in the laboratory with the full virus but with the help of surrogate systems that allow the analysis of the host cell in the security level two laboratories (S2). These artificial particles reproduce the infectious entry of Ebola viruses in target cells very well and since they are unable to multiply in humans, they therefore offer a high level of biosecurity.