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Dallas Ebola Patient Receives Experimental Drug

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And as we heard from Wade, the Ebola patient in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, is being offered an experimental drug to treat his infection. This is the first time this particular drug has been tried in a patient with Ebola. And joining us to talk more about this development is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, to clarify, this is not Z-Map. This is not the drug used to treat the missionaries who contracted Ebola in West Africa. Tell us about this new drug.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: That is correct. This drug is called brincidofovir. And a spokesman for the North Carolina company that makes it, called Chimerix, says it has been tested in the Ebola - against Ebola in the test tube. And those tests show that it was potent against this virus. However, it's important to note that unlike other potential Ebola drugs that we've been talking about over these last couple of weeks, it has not been tested in animals. Other drugs have shown some effect against Ebola in monkeys who were later given the deadly virus. This one has not.

BLOCK: So knowing that, why would they be trying this drug on Mr. Duncan in Dallas?

HARRIS: Well, the company says that doctors in Dallas came to them and asked for the drug. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved this experimental use on an emergency basis. And one thing going for this drug is that the company says it's been tried on about a thousand patients. And that shows it's apparently reasonably safe. People who took the drug are participating in clinical trials to see if it's useful against other viruses, including cytalomegavirus, something called adenovirus and even smallpox.

BLOCK: Sounds like quite a range of viruses there.

HARRIS: Indeed, yeah. And that's kind of the point here. The company that's developing the drug hopes that it will be a broad spectrum antiviral drug - in other words, not pinpointed to treat just one type of virus, but able to disable a wide variety of viruses. But since these tests are still all ongoing, it's not clear if it's actually useful against any of these diseases just yet. That said, the drug does closely resemble other drugs that are effective against viruses. So there is a theoretical underpinning for this. There is, however, one big difference between these viruses and the Ebola virus. The Ebola virus has RNA instead of DNA as its genetic material. And this drug is thought to interfere with DNA enzymes. So it's not exactly clear why it worked against Ebola in the test tube.

BLOCK: Do we know, Richard, how much of this drug, brincidofovir, is available?

HARRIS: The company won't say exactly. But they do say that the drug is currently being tested in clinical trials, so they aren't about to run out of it. And that, I would add, is in contrast to some of the other experimental Ebola drugs we've talked about on other occasions, like Z-Map, where supplies are slim to nonexistent.

BLOCK: And how will they determine whether this drug has worked in helping this patient?

HARRIS: You know, they probably won't know if it ever helped. One person's experience is unlikely to be informative, whether he lives or dies. And that's why researchers are gearing up to try larger and carefully controlled drug studies in West Africa, where the disease is raging. It will take close comparisons between groups of treated and untreated individuals for researchers to know which, if any of these drugs, are useful.

BLOCK: You say they're gearing up, Richard. When would those trials actually start?

HARRIS: Well, researchers at Oxford University are hoping to get the first test going in late November. That's a stretch goal, but that's what they're working for. One of the huge challenges is that these experimental drugs are still in extremely short supply. Public health officials keep saying that the key to stopping Ebola epidemic is not developing drugs and vaccines, but making sure that sick people remain isolated so they stop passing the infection along. It's a low-tech approach, but in principle, it's very effective. But as we've seen, the affected countries have really not had the resources to bring to bear to make that really work.

BLOCK: OK, NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Richard, thanks so much.

HARRIS: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.