Sep 17, 2014 02:14 AM EDT
Currently spreading unabated in the western regions of Africa, infecting five countries over the short summer as bodies line the streets, the epidemic of the Ebola virus has itself sparked decades worth of research into immunological challenges we face against deadly pathogens. Defenseless against few, and always at a disadvantage to the ever-evolving, ever-changing pathogens we face in our day-to-day lives, researchers have run the gamut in recent months searching for inoculations, cures and even preventative treatments.
"This [current epidemic] far outstrips any historic Ebola outbreak in numbers" World Health Organization (WHO) spokespersons said in a recent official report. "The largest outbreak in the past was [only] about 400 cases."
Known as "Hemorrhagic Fever" for the final stages of the viral infection, Ebola has proven to be an extremely complex and lethal pathogen in the most recent international infection. Thought to have originated from the consumption of African bushmeat, i.e. infected monkeys, Ebola carries similar origins to the global killer HIV and is even symptomatically worse. Transmittable by blood or mucosal secretions, Ebola has spread in the unsanitary conditions of West Africa as family members dispose of infected bodies on the streets of major cities, causing researchers to fear that given time the virus may mutate into a pathogen transmitted through the air.
Once infected, the symptomatic stages of Ebola appear swiftly and quickly escalate from simple flu-like symptoms all the way to hemorrhagic death, as individuals bleed out from their many open wounds. The hemorrhagic, bleed stage, of the Ebola infection typically begins 5 to 7 days after infection, and begins with vomiting/urinating blood and subcutaneous bleeding, underneath the skin and into organs like the eyes. With a 90% incidence of fatality after infection, the prognosis is rather bleak, directing researchers towards privative measures that will counteract the pathogen before it can infect host cells.
Weeks ago, news from the journal Nature and the Canadian Public Health Agency came that pointed towards a potential cure for the virus-experimental drug ZMapp. Originally tested this past April on 18 infected macaque monkeys, ZMapp provided full recoveries for all even after severe symptoms entered the hemorrhagic phase. However, as clinical trials, human trials and efficacy of potential cures must be verified, preventative measures are still at the forefront of immunological research today.
Reporting their findings in the journal Science last Friday Sept. 5, a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom have found that some pathogens can in fact be intercepted using simple tagging, so that the body recognizes the foreign invader. Passing through the blood and extracellular fluids to infect host cells, some pathogens which include viruses and bacteria often go undetected by the average immune system.
"While in the extracellular environments, pathogens can be intercepted by humoral immunity or by professional immune cells, however, immune surveillance is not always sufficient to prevent infection" lead researcher, Jerry Tam says. "We hypothesized that one method of pathogen detection may be to take advantage of the pathogen's transition between extracellular and intracellular environments."
By placing the pathogens in a serum with proteins that can covalently bind tags to the virus or bacteria, the body of the hosts attacked by the pathogens was able to detect the C3 tags and activate immunological responses that prevented infection. Though the experiment was only tested on a limited number of pathogens in the lab, the researchers hypothesize that their findings will have greater significance in the search for viable inoculations, as C3-dependent sensing is an attribute widely found across the immune systems of most mammals.
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