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Thai Researchers Claim Breakthrough in Ebola Treatment

  • Ron Corben

FILE - This undated file image made available by the CDC shows the Ebola Virus.

FILE - This undated file image made available by the CDC shows the Ebola Virus.

A day after Thai medical scientists claimed they made a breakthrough in the search for a treatment for the Ebola virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. National Institutes of Health have offered to assist Thailand in vetting and testing the experimental treatment.

Thai research scientists at Mahidol University's Siriraj Hospital, Thursday said they developed the world's first antibody treatment for Ebola, despite not having access to the virus.

Wanpen Chaicumpa, head of the Ebola research team at the Hospital, says they created a new kind of antibody using human genes that is so small that it can enter the Ebola virus and disrupt its ability to replicate.

Chaicumpa said the research team had been under pressure given the urgency created by the Ebola epidemic.

"We feel it comes to us so suddenly," Wanpen said. "We have worked on this kind of antibodies against other infections before but this thing has come so soon and so sudden that it put us under some pressure."

Chaicumpa says researchers applied synthesised Ebola genes in the development of the antibody and tested them on viruses similar to, but less virulent, than the five Ebola variants.

Researchers cautioned the experimental treatment is still a long way off from human trials. They welcomed offers of help from the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. National Institutes of Health, whose top scientist, Lisa Hensley, is a specialist in infectious disease control, including Ebola.

Chaicumpa says the offers of foreign assistance are important due to limitations within Thailand's medical research sector.

“We have to use facilities from abroad, like gene sequencing and other things like computerized modelling of the molecule. So this is our problem, we don't have adequate supporting equipment," Chaicumpa said. "We can produce in the lab in the small scale, very small scale, [but] to go to the industrial scale, the pilot plant we have to modify the antibody molecule in such a way it can produce well in the cell culture of the factory scale.”

Chaicumpa said the research team was contacted by Hensley, an associate director and microbiologist at the Maryland based National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Integrated Research Facility.

She said Hensley offered the university support to test the Thai work directly against the Ebola virus under appropriate bio-security conditions and the requirements to enable production of medications for human use. Thailand does not possess a Biosafety level 4 facility required to undertake tests on a virus such as Ebola.

Scientists, such as Voravit Suwanvanichkij, a research associate in Thailand from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg school of public health, says that while such research is welcome, the Ebola-affected regions are in need of long term development to rebuild collapsed health services.

"The other important thing that this shouldn't distract us from is the setting of where this happened," Voravit said. " You're talking about countries that have been faltering for a decade. So even if we have a new treatment you still have countries where essentially the health system is in collapse and that's something that we shouldn't forget to work on by addressing this epidemic."

The WHO has said a vaccine may be available in significant quantities by the year's end to help control the Ebola outbreak. At present there is no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola. Scientists are said to have been testing two vaccines.

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