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'Achilles heel' of Ebola virus found in study

Researchers have identified the NPC1 protein that allows the Ebola virus to invade cells and begin replicating itself, which the virus needs in order to infect a host.

By Stephen Feller
'Achilles heel' of Ebola virus found in study
Scientists have identified the cellular protein which allows the Ebola virus to invade cells and infect hosts. Photo: Festa/Shutterstock

BRONX, N.Y., May 26 (UPI) -- Researchers have identified the protein that the Ebola virus requires in order to invade cells and infect a victim, which they hope will allow the development of treatments to prevent the spread of the disease and more deaths from it.

Ebola tricks cells by binding to their outer membrane, a portion of which breaks off allowing it to enter the cell inside of a membrane-bound bubble called an endosome. Once inside, the virus binds to the Niemann-Pick C1, or NPC1, host protein to escape from the endosome and begin replicating inside the cell in order to infect a person.

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"Our study reveals NPC1 to be an Achilles' heel for Ebola virus infection," said Kartik Chandran, Ph.D., an associate professor of microbiology and immunology and the Harold and Muriel Block Faculty Scholar in Virology at Einstein, in a press release. "Mice lacking both copies of the NPC1 gene, and therefore devoid of the NPC1 protein, were completely resistant to infection."

While previous studies have shown that Ebola used the NPC1 protein to enter the cytoplasm of a cell and begin to make copies of itself, this new study has proven the protein is required for infection by testing the virus on mice which don't possess NPC1.

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In humans, the NPC1 protein helps transport cholesterol into cells, and those without the protein develop a fatal neurodegenerative disorder as cells get clogged with cholesterol and die. Researchers believe that humans could withstand a short treatment designed to block this protein and prevent Ebola from infecting a host organism, similar to the mice in the study that were not infected.

"Ideally," Dr. Chandran said, "future research in humans, based on these findings, will lead to the development of antiviral drugs that can effectively target NPC1 and prevent infection not just by Ebola, but also by other highly virulent filoviruses, which also require NPC1 as a receptor."

The study is published in mBio.

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