Researchers have identified a new Ebola drug target that will enable the discovery of therapies with the potential to treat any future epidemic, even if new virus strains emerge.
University of Utah biochemists produced a molecule, known as a peptide mimic, that displays a functionally critical region of the virus that is universally conserved in all known species of Ebola.
This new tool can be used as a drug target in the discovery of anti-Ebola agents that are effective against all known strains and likely future strains.
The peptide mimics a highly conserved region in the Ebola protein that controls entry of the virus into the human host cell, initiating infection.
The researchers were able to demonstrate this peptide target is suitable for use in high-throughput drug screens.
These kinds of screens allow rapid identification of potential new drugs from billions of possible candidates.
Current experimental drugs generally target only one of Ebola's five species.
"The current growing epidemic demonstrates the need for effective broad-range Ebola virus therapies," said Dr Tracy R Clinton, lead author on the study.
"Importantly, viral sequence information from the epidemic reveals rapid changes in the viral genome, while our target sequence remains the same.
"Therefore, our target will enable the discovery of drugs with the potential to treat any future epidemic, even if new Ebola virus strains emerge," Clinton said.
Ebola is a lethal virus that causes severe hemorrhagic fever with a 50% to 90% mortality rate. There are five known species of the virus.
Outbreaks have been occurring with increasing frequency in recent years, and an unprecedented and rapidly expanding Ebola outbreak is currently spreading through several countries in West Africa with devastating consequences, researchers said.
There are no approved anti-Ebola agents, but a number of promising experimental drugs are being aggressively advanced to clinical trials to address the current crisis.
"Although the current push of clinical trials will hopefully lead to an effective treatment for the Zaire species causing the present epidemic, the same treatments are unlikely to be effective against future outbreaks of a different or new Ebola species," said Debra Eckert, research assistant professor of biochemistry.
"Development of a broadly acting therapy is an important long-term goal that would allow cost-effective stockpiling of a universal Ebola treatment," Eckert added.
The study was published in the journal Protein Science.