Studying dangerous viruses and bacteria can only be done under strict precautions to make sure the researchers do not get infected and potentially infect others. So far, the Ebola virus could only be studied under the highest safety level – BioSafety Level 4 (BSL4), and scientists were required to use expensive and extremely limiting equipment. In contrast, pathogens (organisms that cause diseases) can be studied in a less restrictive environment if they are mutated so that they do not pose a threat to the research team.
A deletion of the viral gene VP30 made the Ebola virus unable to replicate in host cells. The Ebola has only eight genes of its own and uses the host’s genes for most of its molecular machinery. The replication of the virus inside the host cell was found to depend on a gene called VP30. The gene enables the virus to replicate and spread itself to neighboring cells. By deleting the VP30 gene from the virus’s genome, the virus lost its ability to spread among the host’s cells, making it safe for further research.
The mutated virus can only grow on cells that were introduced with the gene VP30, as it requires the VP30 gene to reproduce. The virus now can only grow inside these cells and it will not affect cells not carrying the gene. Therefore, the Ebola virus can now be researched in normal labs without the need of special equipment.
Ebola is a widely spread virus, especially in Africa. In 2007 alone there were several outbreaks in Congo and Uganda with hundreds of infected people and many deaths. Developing a vaccine or a cure for the fatal virus can save thousands of lives in the future, and although a promising vaccine was developed for monkeys back in 2003, a vaccine for humans has yet to be developed and the recent advance may help the research efforts.
More information on the safe Ebola virus can be found in the Wisconsin-Madison news page.