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High mutation rate of Ebola virus may help treatment

Using a drug to increase the mutation rate of Ebola was shown to make the virus non-viable, but researchers said they need to find a more effective drug.
By Stephen Feller   |   Jan. 5, 2016 at 2:26 PM

SAN ANTONIO, Jan. 5 (UPI) -- Researchers have found that speeding up the rate at which the Ebola virus mutates could make it less viable to infect a human host, according to a new study.

RNA viruses have the ability to quickly evolve for survival in a new environment, allowing it to adapt to pressures such as antiviral drugs, the immune system and a new animal host. Scientists at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute found the drug ribavirin increased Ebola's mutation rate in experiments with monkeys, though not enough to suggest it as a treatment for the virus.

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Dr. Anthony Griffiths, a scientist at TBRI, said in a press release that researchers were unsure whether Ebola could evolve and what the response would be to stimulating that evolution. Using ultra-deep sequencing, they found it had a high spontaneous mutation frequency and that it may not tolerate such mutations very well.

In the study, published in the Journal of Virology, the researchers first tested their theory in mice by treating them with ribavirin. The drug affected Ebola's mutation rate enough that it became non-viable, delaying the rodents' time to death and increasing survival.

The effects of the drug were repeated with monkeys, though researchers noted the effect was not strong enough for the drug to be recommended as a treatment for the virus.

With knowledge that Ebola can evolve in humans -- as seen in the most recent outbreaks -- researchers said the path for future experiments is clear.

"Now we have shown the potential of modifying mutation rate as a therapeutic tool for Ebola virus infections," Griffiths said. "We plan to test other drugs in the hope of improving the efficacy observed using ribavirin."

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