The Ebola virus has infected 1,975 people since the latest outbreak began in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The mortality rate is roughly 53% and is expected to rise. Countries like Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea have declared health emergencies, while WHO has classified Kenya as 'high-risk' - the most serious indicator to-date that Ebola could spread to East Africa.
There is no known vaccine, treatment, or cure for Ebola, which is contracted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or animal. However, Thomas Webster's lab at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, US, is currently working on one possible weapon for fighting the virus: nanotechnology.
"It has been very hard to develop a vaccine or treatment for Ebola or similar viruses because they mutate so quickly," explains Webster, chemical engineering chair and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Nanomedicine. "In nanotechnology, we turn our attention to developing nanoparticles that could be attached chemically to the viruses and stop them from spreading."
One particle that is showing great promise is gold. According to Webster, gold nanoparticles are currently being used to treat cancer. Infrared waves, he explains, heat up the gold nanoparticles, which, in turn, attack and destroy everything from viruses to cancer cells.
Recognizing that a larger surface area would lead to a quicker heat-up time, Webster's team created gold 'nanostars.' "The star has a lot more surface area, so it can heat up much faster than a sphere can," says Webster. "And that greater surface area allows it to attack more viruses once they absorb to the particles."
The challenge the researchers face, however, is making sure the hot gold nanoparticles attack the virus or cancer cells rather than healthy cells. Webster's lab is also generating a nanoparticle that would pose as a 'virus decoy,' chemically attracting the virus to attack it rather than healthy cells.
While Webster's team has been working in nanotechnology for about 15 years, it was not until recently that the lab started to explore the benefits of nanomedicine. "We realized the potential," Webster says, noting that his student researchers use synthetic analogs that mimic viruses' structures. "There is obviously such a huge need right now for ways to treat Ebola and other viruses, and it's up to us to study and look at new and creative ways that traditional medicine really can't."