The recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa is making headlines around the world, and generating a fair bit of international concern. The deadly virus has claimed over 800 lives since March in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, and is fatal in up to 90 percent of cases. Israeli researcher Dr. Leslie Lobel, however, is not sitting idly by. He has been studying the disease for many years and believes he is close to developing a cure.
Ebola was first identified in 1976 in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It starts off looking like a bad flu, but quickly progresses to vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding, according to the World Health Organization.
The incubation period for the disease is 2 to 21 days, and people are considered contagious as long as their blood and other bodily fluids contain the virus, which can be up to two months after infection. It is believed, but not proven, that Ebola is transmitted to the human population from bats.
“It actually has not been proven that bats are guilty. It has been demonstrated that they are for Marburg [another hemorrhagic fever virus], but not for Ebola,” Lobel said.
“But bats are the likely reservoir. It makes sense because bats don’t fly far and don’t usually come into contact with people. This would explain the limited scope of Ebola outbreaks.”
Lobel and fellow principal researcher Dr. Victoria Yavelsky have been studying Ebola and Marburg at Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s Center for Emerging Disease, Tropical Diseases and AIDS in southern Israel.
According to Lobel, they “isolate and produce in the lab molecules that are naturally produced by the immune system in survivors, and they attach to the Ebola virus to inhibit infection. These are the antibodies that the body produces naturally as part of the immune system’s response to the pathogens.”
Lobel, who is an oleh (immigrant) from New York with an MD degree and doctorate in virology from Columbia University, visits Africa five times a year to meet with Ebola survivors and collect samples. The experience is unique.
“I have been doing this for 10 years, and an incredible team from the US military has joined along with wonderful collaborators in Uganda,” he said. “Everything is very well organized there.”
“I protect myself with anti-malaria pills and antibiotics and meet with survivors who were infected at least three months before but survived and are healthy. I study their immune systems to find out why they survived and others didn’t. The answer could be genetic or epigenetic [environmental effects on the genes], Lobel explained to the Jerusalem Post.
“I don’t cover myself when I talk to them so I can gain their trust. I go in as a proud Israeli and am very respectful of them. I don’t come in as a stranger to take blood samples and leave,” he added.
Lobel and Lovelsky are the first to do follow-up research with Ebola survivors. They work in partnership with the US military and the Uganda Virus Research Institute for their research, as they cannot work directly with the Ebola virus in Israel. Such research requires a high containment lab, which does not exist in Israel, as Lobel explains, for good reason.
“First of all, high containment labs are very expensive to operate. And second of all, there is the security issue here in the Middle East. Working with Ebola here is just asking for trouble,” Lobel told The Times of Israel.
Currently, the US military has an active vaccine at its disposal, but Lobel and Lovelsky’s goal is to create a passive vaccine out of preformed components from the body’s natural immune system, which would be faster-acting and far more effective. Although this vaccine would not be ready for use in the current outbreak, Lobel expects to develop a usable treatment within five years.