UW-Madison study reveals biomarkers for Ebola

A new study from a team led by UW-Madison researchers has discovered new biomarkers that could help distinguish fatal Ebola infections from non-fatal ones.

The study’s senior author, Yoshihiro Kawaoka, is a virology professor at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. He led a team studying Ebola cases in Sierra Leone, which saw a “major outbreak” of the disease in 2014.

“It is very rare for us to encounter that situation,” said Kawaoka, who is also a professor of virology at the University of Tokyo.

Researchers obtained 29 blood samples from 11 patients who survived and nine blood samples from nine patients who died as a result of the virus. The virus in the samples was inactivated, then sent to UW-Madison and other study partners for analysis.

Katrina Waters, a biologist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and study author, called this “the most thorough analysis yet” of Ebola-infected blood samples.

“Our team studied thousands of molecular clues in each of these samples, sifting through extensive data on the activity of genes, proteins and other molecules to identify those of most interest,” she said.

Researchers found that the levels of two molecules called L-threonine and vitamin D binding protein could be used to accurately predict which patients will survive the infection and which will not. They were both found in lower levels at the time of admission for fatal cases.

“We want to understand why those two compounds are discriminating factors,” Kawaoka said. “We might be able to develop drugs.”

The team also found that plasma cytokines — involved in immunity and stress response — were higher in patients who died. Patients that died had higher levels of the virus, changes to blood coagulation molecules, and more pronounced activation of some immune cells.

“I hope another outbreak like this never occurs,” says Kawaoka. “But hopefully this rare opportunity to study Ebola virus in humans leads to fewer lives lost in the future.”

The study was published in the scientific journal Cell Host & Microbe. The team included researchers from the University of Tokyo, the University of Sierra Leone, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

–By Alex Moe