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LIFE LINE: Icon Genetics is developing a vaccine for Ebola with the help of tobacco plants.
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LIFE LINE: Icon Genetics is developing a vaccine for Ebola with the help of tobacco plants.

Waging war on Ebola

Science | Researchers speed up efforts to fight dreaded disease

Issue: "The one and the many," Sept. 20, 2014

Researchers have developed a vaccine that is highly effective in preventing Ebola in monkeys that have been exposed to the disease. A Phase I clinical trial to test the drug’s safety in humans may begin as early as next month, with results expected in January. If the vaccine proves to be safe, healthcare workers in Africa could receive it in less than a year.

Researchers are accelerating the clinical development process because of the urgency to control the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) told the New York Daily News. In the Phase I trials researchers will test the vaccine on healthy human volunteers to gain information on side effects and dosage recommendations. Unlike many other vaccines, this one does not contain any of the viruses that cause the disease, scientists at the Vaccine Research Center told CBS News.

Ebola was first recognized in 1976, but the rarity of the disease made creating either a treatment, or a preventive vaccine, a slow and difficult process. From the first documented case of Ebola until the present outbreak there were only 2,200 known occurrences. With so few cases there was little potential profit to motivate pharmaceutical companies to pursue treatment or prevention. 

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“There’s not a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies,” Thomas Geisbert, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, told CBS News. “There’s no incentive for the private sector, so you have to rely on the government.” 

The current vaccine is not the only one offering hope for prevention. Geisbert is working on research for at least four other potential vaccines. One of those could be given in a single dose, which would be of great benefit in poor countries where patient follow-up visits could be problematic.

But, Fauci cautioned, even an effective vaccine to prevent Ebola won’t be enough to stop an epidemic. Treatments for people who have already contracted the disease must be available too.

Solar circulation

Anon_Pichit/iStock

Much to the surprise of the scientific community, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have discovered an unexpected link between the natural activity of the sun and climate change. With the less-than-expected global warming of the past 15 years, the sun’s role in climate variability has become a matter of debate. This is the first time scientists have been able to reconstruct the sun’s activity at the end of the last ice age.

Scientists have documented direct observations of solar changes, such as number of sunspots, for only the past few hundred years, so researchers use evidence of trace elements in things like ice cores and tree rings to reconstruct models of past solar variability. The Lund University researchers analyzed ice cones in Greenland and cave formations in China to reconstruct the sun’s activity at the end of the last ice age. The research shows “that changes in solar activity are nothing new and that solar activity influences the climate, especially on a regional level,” said Raimund Muscheler, co-author of the study.

The research suggests that climate is not affected so much by the direct result of solar energy but by the indirect effect the sun has on atmospheric circulation. The researchers predict that reduced solar activity could lead to colder winters in Northern Europe while, at the same time, producing warmer winters, greater snowfall and more storms in Greenland. “The study also shows that the various solar processes need to be included in climate models in order to better predict future global and regional climate change,” said Muscheler. —J.B.

Julie Borg
Julie Borg

Julie is a clinical psychologist and writer who lives in Dayton, Ohio.

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