SAN ANTONIO – The Ebola virus killed more than 11,000 people globally in 2014 alone. Now two teams of scientists in San Antonio are charged with stopping another outbreak like that. They just got a grant from the U.S. government.
It's precise, demanding, dangerous work, but two teams of San Antonio scientists are determined to beat the Ebola virus.
"The government really wants to get to some sort of treatment as quickly as possible for Ebola, because it's still out there. It hasn't gone on the news recently but actually at the moment there are about 10 people with the disease still in Africa. In any other year that would be a very scary situation," said Dr. Robert Davey, a scientist at Texas Biomedical Research Institute.
About five years ago Dr. Davey found a compound that stopped the Ebola virus from spreading.
"A compound called tetrandrine which worked very well in a dish and also we could stop disease in mice," Dr. Davey said.
"The other thing that happened in the outbreak in Africa in 2014 was they found that people taking malaria medication called chloroquine, they actually had less severe Ebola virus disease," he explained.
Each of those medicines alone, would have to be taken in extremely high doses.
"So we thought, all right what happens if we put the two things together?" Davey said.
The government has put out a $3.4 million grant to find out. Dr. Davey and his team have already put the drug mixture together and successfully tested it on mice. Soon, they'll test it on primates, but they need to get the mixture into a pill form. That's where Southwest Research senior program manager Larry Cabell and his team come into play.
"They're good at taking the white powder and turning it into a pill that you can then take," Davey explained.
"So if you were a first responder or say somebody in your family was coming down with this, then you could take these drugs that would protect you," Cabell said.
Working with a deadly disease is scary, so there are lots of safety precautions including sealed suits. Each suit is kept clean and is tested for holes before every use. They are constantly ventilated by a tube of air connected to the suit. If for some reason that tube detaches, the scientists wearing the suits will only have about five minutes of breathing time.
Davey knows his work could turn deadly but said it's worth the risk.
"Because we can make a very big impact on human health. If Ebola was to get out of Africa and spread around the world it would be devastating.
Every day he and his team work hard to stop that from happening.
Davey's team is also excited about something else that happened last week. The scientists just published a milestone paper explaining how they did the world's largest screen for molecules that could stop Ebola virus infection.
"We tested 320,000 small molecules from the NH drug library and we actually identified eight compounds that act in a special way to inhibit Ebola virus," Davey said.
They are now calling those eight compounds "back-ups." If the current project does not work, those could eventually be tested as an Ebola cure as well.