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Could RNA Drugs Defeat Ebola Virus?

An RNA-based treatment may stop the Ebola virus in its tracks

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At first, people infected with the Ebola virus appear to have the flu—fever, chills, muscle aches. Then the bleeding begins. As the virus hijacks cells throughout the body to make copies of itself, it overwhelms and damages the liver, lungs, spleen and blood vessels. Within days organs begin to fail and many patients fall into a coma. Some outbreaks, primarily in Central and West Africa, have killed up to 90 percent of infected individuals.

That terrifying prognosis may be about to change. Using so-called small interfering RNA, or siRNA, Thomas W. Geisbert, now at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and his many collaborators have devised a highly promising treatment that has saved the lives of six monkeys infected with the virus. As reported this past January, the treatment has also passed its first safety test in an uninfected human volunteer. One of Geisbert's collaborators, Ian Maclachlan of Burnaby, British Columbia–based Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, and his team have received a $140-million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop the therapy further.

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