Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Health Officials Consider Blood Serum As Possible Ebola Treatment


Ebola has sickened more than 6,000 people in West Africa and the outbreak keeps growing. There are still no proven drugs or therapies for this disease, but about 3,000 people have survived Ebola and have anti-bodies to the virus in their blood. Earlier this month the World Health Organization held a meeting on possible treatments that generated a lot of excitement about using the serum from the blood of these survivors. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports it's not clear if this kind of serum really helps, or how feasible it'll be to use it.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The idea of using survivor's antibodies against Ebola has been around ever since the first known outbreak, in 1976. An epidemiologist named David Hayman had just started his career with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was sent to what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

DAVID HAYMAN: The outbreak was almost over by the time the teams got in there so what was done was mainly an investigation to better understand the disease.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: If the disease ever reappeared, they'd need a potential treatment. One possibility was antibodies from survivors. That's why Hayman spent a couple of months collecting their serum, the part of the blood that's rich in antibodies. The yellow liquid was stored in clear plastic bags. Later that year a lab worker in the United Kingdom who got infected with Ebola was given this serum along with other medicines that doctors thought might help.

HAYMAN: So it's not clear whether the antibody had an effect or not, but he survived.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The next hint that extra antibodies might help patients fight the disease came two decades later, during the next outbreak of Ebola, in 1995. Bob Colebunders is a physician in Belgium who treated Ebola patients then. He says some of his colleagues gave patients transfusions of whole blood that was donated by survivors.

BOB COLEBUNDERS: And of the eight individuals that received blood, seven of them survived.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's pretty good in an epidemic that had been killing 80 percent of the victims. But was it because they got the survivors' blood? There's no way to know. He says this was tried at the end of the epidemic. Far fewer people had Ebola and health care workers weren't so overwhelmed. These patients got much better care; IV fluids, antibiotics and anti-malaria drugs.

COLEBUNDERS: Something that was impossible when there are too many patients in the beginning of an epidemic, or as is the case now in West Africa so many patients it's extremely difficult to provide good care.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And again in this current outbreak, it seems that the small number of people who've received blood products from survivors and recovered also got other kinds of special medical care and experimental therapies.

Marie-Paule Kieny is Assistant Director General at the World Health Organization.

MARIE-PAULE KIENY: It's too early to say whether they have been saved by the treatment or whether they would have survived anyway.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's now efforts underway to try to set up a rigorous study to find out. That's no simple matter. Kieny says they're working with partners to bring equipment and other material to the affected countries. Any donated blood would need screening for all kinds of diseases that are common in West Africa. She says they likely won't have real quantities of serum until early next year. Even if this therapy were to prove beneficial, using it in this epidemic would not be straightforward.

JENNIFER CONE: It definitely is very challenging on the ground.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jennifer Cone is with Doctors Without Borders. She says they would not only need the right tools for blood collecting and testing...

CONE: But we also need the staff to staff those - to staff the blood collection, to staff the screening. We need the staff to actually provide the transfusions, to monitor the patients for possible side effects of these transfusions.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: And right now they don't even have the staff they need to do the basics.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.