Diagnosing Ebola before Symptoms Arrive

in Featured, In The News
March 29th, 2018

In 2014, an Ebola epidemic began to ravage West Africa. It became the largest Ebola outbreak in history, lasting two years and infecting an estimated 28,000 people—most in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Ultimately, it took more than 11,000 lives.

Many of those lives might have been saved if health-care workers could have treated and quarantined infected people during the early stages of the disease. Currently, however, there is no way to diagnose Ebola until symptoms arrive—and the fever, severe headache, and muscle pain that mark Ebola can strike victims anytime between 2 and 21 days after exposure. “Right now, we wait for diagnosis until the virus spills out of primary infection sites into the blood,” says Emily Speranza (GRS’18). “At that point, it’s already tremendously far along.”

Speranza may have found a better way. Working with colleagues at BU’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL), as well as the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), Speranza, who recently earned a PhD in the interdisciplinary bioinformatics program, studied data from 12 monkeys exposed to Ebola virus and discovered a common pattern of immune response among the ones that got sick. This response occurred four days before the onset of fever—the first observable symptom of infection. The work, funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and others and published on March 28, 2018, in the journal Science Translational Medicine, suggests a possible biomarker for early diagnosis of the disease.

“Four days! Think about it,” says paper senior author John Connor, a School of Medicine associate professor of microbiology and a NEIDL researcher. “If I could tell you four days before you were going to be sick, that would be fantastic.”

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