News / Health

Researchers Develop Experimental Treatment for Deadly Nipah Virus

FILE - Bats fly over a tree at a central park in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March, 6, 2008.
FILE - Bats fly over a tree at a central park in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March, 6, 2008.
Jessica Berman

Researchers are a step closer to developing a treatment for the deadly Nipah virus, a disease transmitted by fruit bats that has a high mortality rate.  The disease is most common in Asia and South Asia.

Nipah virus causes fever, headache, drowsiness, mental confusion, and left untreated, it can progress to coma. It has a 90 percent mortality rate.  Although rare, it occasionally causes outbreaks among hundreds of people in Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh and India through contact with the bodily fluids of infected fruit bats, including their urine.

The highly infectious virus is in the same class as Ebola, Marburg, and Hendra viruses. Currently, there's a serious Ebola outbreak in three countries in western Africa.

Researchers who work with Nipah must wear protective suits, gloves and face masks. Once infected, an individual can spread the illness to other people.

Now, a team of U.S. university and government researchers has discovered an antibody in uninfected individuals that fights the virus. They report their findings this week in Science Translational Medicine.

Lead researcher Thomas Geisbert of the University of Texas Medical Branch says the human monoclonal antibody cured the test animals - African Green Monkeys - even as many as five days after the infection had set in. Otherwise, they would have died within eight to 10 days.

"We give 'em [them] the antibody and they are completely protected against Nipah.  So, that's really a unique aspect and really exciting for us," said Geisbert.

If developed as a therapy for people, that would give public health officials enough time to identify an outbreak and begin treatment.

Geisbert says the antibody is unlike a traditional vaccine, which stimulates the immune system to fight a virus or bacteria.

"The antibody pretty much attacks and targets and blocks the virus from replicating or making more virus particles," said Geisbert.

Because of the deadly nature of Nipah, and the fact that outbreaks occur so infrequently, Geisbert says human safety trials, along with data showing the drug cures sick animals, are enough to gain regulatory approval in the United States.  The process has implications for the development of treatments for other exotic diseases.

Australia, there have been outbreaks of a similar disease called Hendra among race horses.  Health officials there are interested in beginning a safety trial with the Nipah antibody, which is also effective against Hendra, by year's end.

While Nipah is rare, Geisbert says international travel could spread the virus to other countries.   

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