BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

September 18, 2016

Research Roundup: Trojan horse antibody against Ebola, the breakthrough that led to Hepatitis C cures, and Zika infection in monkeys

Senior Program Assistant
GHTC

Scientists have devised a Trojan horse strategy to prevent the Ebola virus from infecting human cells. To infect humans, the virus binds to the surface of a human cell, enters the cell, and then binds to the protein Niemann-Pick C1 (NPC1). Once it binds to NPC1, the virus can start replicating and spreading throughout the body. Consequently, the researchers first engineered two antibodies: one that targets the human protein NPC1 and another that targets the viral protein that binds to NPC1. However, they needed a Trojan horse: a molecule that could deliver the antibodies to the scene of the crime, deep inside human cells, where the virus binds to NPC1. The solution? The team synthesized each antibody with a third antibody that binds to the surface of the Ebola virus. In short, the team created two molecules by combining the antibody that could latch onto the virus with two antibodies that could prevent the virus from infecting human cells. Both combinations proved effective in the lab against all five strains of the Ebola virus and in mouse trials, one of the molecules effectively treated infected mice. Next, the molecules will be tested in nonhuman primates.

A recent piece in STAT takes an in-depth look at the critical advances in hepatitis C research that paved the way for the development of Sovaldi, the first drug proven to cure hepatitis C. Hepatitis C was first discovered in 1989, however, the virus is notoriously difficult to reproduce in the lab. Consequently, the time and cost of producing the virus hindered research. Ralf Bartenschlager and Charles Rice, researchers at the University of Heidelberg and Rockefeller University, respectively, determined that certain mutations of the virus enabled select strains of the virus to survive in the lab, and engineered versions of the virus—deemed “replicons”—with those mutations. Using these replicons, drug companies were able to rapidly screen the efficacy of different compounds in combatting hepatitis C. Among these companies, the small biotech firm Pharmasset developed a particularly promising drug, which was eventually—after the company was acquired by Gilead Sciences—approved and marketed as Sovaldi. The drug became the first cure for Hepatitis C, however, its price tag of up to US$94,000 for the full regimen has impeded access to it.

While existing evidence suggests that Zika infection has the greatest impact on fetal brain development during the first trimester of pregnancy, new research indicates that infection later in pregnancy can still have a devastating impact. Scientists at the University of Washington infected a pregnant monkey with the virus at the beginning of her third trimester, and in less than a month, significant damage to the fetus was reported: both the white matter in the brain and the head itself stopped growing. However, the team administered the virus in higher doses than would be found in individual mosquitoes, and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who used lower doses, found no fetal brain damage after infecting four pregnant monkeys.

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