Scientists Who Endanger Their Lives:  The Case of Ebola

By Shlomo  Maital    

ebola

   Scientific papers published in Science rarely involve heroism, drama, and life-threatening courage.   This one does:

Gire, SK, Goba, A et al. Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak. Science, 2014, online.

    Here is the story, as described in a dry press release by Harvard:

     “ n response to an ongoing, unprecedented outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa, a team of researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard University, (MIT-Harvard),  in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation and researchers across institutions and continents, has rapidly sequenced and analyzed more than 99 Ebola virus genomes. Their findings could have important implications for rapid field diagnostic tests. The team reports its results online in the journal Science.”

       The research was led by Broad Institute researcher Pardis Sabeti, Augustine Goba, Director of the Lassa Laboratory at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, and Stephen Gire, first author,  a research scientist in the Sabeti lab at the Broad Institute and Harvard.  The team  shipped samples back to Boston, and then  20 people worked around the clock.   In one week:  they decoded gene sequences from 99 Ebola samples!  This is truly amazing. 

        What the team did was to act rapidly to collect samples of Ebola from a Sierra Leone hospital last April, when the outbreak began, and then gathered additional samples as the virus spread and mutated.  They did this under life-threatening conditions, especially those on the ground on-site, because at the time there was insufficient protective gear for hospital workers, and some indeed died. 

       They gathered 99 samples of Ebola in all. Then they decoded the genome of each sample.  This was unprecedented in its speed.   What they found was important.  The Ebola virus has only 7 genes (!) compared to the human genome, comprising more than 20,000 genes.  Like all viruses, Ebola penetrates the human cell and commandeers its DNA mechanism, to make more viruses rather than human DNA.  Ebola is fatal in 52 per cent of all cases.

      The Broad Institute researchers found that Ebola initially spread from an animal to a human.  BUT —  from then on, it ONLY spread among humans.  The initial call to avoid mangos and meat was uncalled for.  And like all viruses, they found that the virus evolved and mutated very quickly in humans.  So, we are in a race, between ‘brilliant’ humans with huge brains, and ‘stupid’ viruses with only 7 genes ..and at the moment, the viruses seem to be winning. 

   I salute the courageous scientists and their assistants on-site, for risking their lives to help save the lives of others.  Sometimes, not often, science is life-threatening,  and quickly, life-saving. 

     In this space, I’ve been fiercely critical of Big Pharma, which rips us off by charging scandalously high prices for drugs with minimal impact.  But for once,  Big Pharma is doing the right thing.   GSK Glaxo Smith Kline is helping the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop an Ebola vaccine.  Only GSK’s huge productive capacity can do this quickly enough to combat the spread of Ebola. 

    

 

 

 

 

 

By Shlomo  Maital    

   Scientific papers published in Science rarely involve heroism, drama, and life-threatening courage.   This one does:

Gire, SK, Goba, A et al. Genomic surveillance elucidates Ebola virus origin and transmission during the 2014 outbreak. Science, 2014, online.

    Here is the story, as described in a dry press release by Harvard:

     “ n response to an ongoing, unprecedented outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa, a team of researchers from the Broad Institute and Harvard University, (MIT-Harvard),  in collaboration with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation and researchers across institutions and continents, has rapidly sequenced and analyzed more than 99 Ebola virus genomes. Their findings could have important implications for rapid field diagnostic tests. The team reports its results online in the journal Science.”

       The research was led by Broad Institute researcher Pardis Sabeti, Augustine Goba, Director of the Lassa Laboratory at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, and Stephen Gire, first author,  a research scientist in the Sabeti lab at the Broad Institute and Harvard.  The team  shipped samples back to Boston, and then  20 people worked around the clock.   In one week:  they decoded gene sequences from 99 Ebola samples!  This is truly amazing. 

        What the team did was to act rapidly to collect samples of Ebola from a Sierra Leone hospital last April, when the outbreak began, and then gathered additional samples as the virus spread and mutated.  They did this under life-threatening conditions, especially those on the ground on-site, because at the time there was insufficient protective gear for hospital workers, and some indeed died. 

       They gathered 99 samples of Ebola in all. Then they decoded the genome of each sample.  This was unprecedented in its speed.   What they found was important.  The Ebola virus has only 7 genes (!) compared to the human genome, comprising more than 20,000 genes.  Like all viruses, Ebola penetrates the human cell and commandeers its DNA mechanism, to make more viruses rather than human DNA.  Ebola is fatal in 52 per cent of all cases.

      The Broad Institute researchers found that Ebola initially spread from an animal to a human.  BUT —  from then on, it ONLY spread among humans.  The initial call to avoid mangos and meat was uncalled for.  And like all viruses, they found that the virus evolved and mutated very quickly in humans.  So, we are in a race, between ‘brilliant’ humans with huge brains, and ‘stupid’ viruses with only 7 genes ..and at the moment, the viruses seem to be winning. 

   I salute the courageous scientists and their assistants on-site, for risking their lives to help save the lives of others.  Sometimes, not often, science is life-threatening,  and quickly, life-saving. 

     In this space, I’ve been fiercely critical of Big Pharma, which rips us off by charging scandalously high prices for drugs with minimal impact.  But for once,  Big Pharma is doing the right thing.   GSK Glaxo Smith Kline is helping the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop an Ebola vaccine.  Only GSK’s huge productive capacity can do this quickly enough to combat the spread of Ebola. 

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