Blood From Ebola Survivors May Help Treat Patients

Originally published on August 22, 2014 5:42 pm
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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When Dr. Kent Brantly was in Liberia sick with Ebola, he received a unit of blood from a 14-year-old Ebola survivor. The hope was antibodies in the boy's blood would help Brantly fight the deadly virus. And now Brantley is a survivor. He's left the hospital in Atlanta fully recovered.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

We don't know if the transfusion played a role in Brantly's survival, but the World Health Organization is considering whether to make that treatment widely available.

GREENE: To talk about this effort, we reached Dr. David Wood. He's part of an Ebola interventions task force at the WHO. We reached him in Geneva and asked how this treatment works.

DAVID WOOD: When we get sick, essentially, our immune system starts to fight the invading viruses. And antibodies are one of the main ways in which our body does this. So when we have survivors of an infection like Ebola, they're going to have these antibodies in their blood which, if we collect them carefully and in a safe manner, then make them available through transfusion to other patients, then this enables the sick person to have a kickstart, if you like, to help their own bodies fight the infection. It's a well tried and tested treatment option that's been used for very many years for other infectious diseases. And we think there's a very good chance that it will work for Ebola.

GREENE: A few things I want to ask you about there. The first is you say there's a good chance it will work with Ebola. I know with Dr. Brantly, as we mentioned, we're not sure yet if that helped him recover. Has it been tried in the past with Ebola and ever been proven to be effective?

WOOD: There certainly have been attempts in previous Ebola outbreaks, and there is literature to suggest there has been a positive effect. But there is also uncertainty about how to fully interpret those previous studies. So whilst we think there's a good chance that it will be effective, we can't say for certain. And we just need to be careful not to promise because it still has to be studied to give us the confidence that the intervention will work.

GREENE: Dr. Wood, let me just ask you - I know the WHO is trying to get this treatment - even though that the science isn't totally certain - get it available to people during this outbreak. What is that process like? How difficult is it to find donors? And how soon might you get this to countries where a lot of people are dying right now?

WOOD: Those are key questions we're working on right now. So identification of the donors is clearly an important first step to do this. We do have contacts with the countries and organizations that are working on the ground in addition to WHO. And I think confident that we will be able to identify the donors in the countries. The next step is working out the logistics of how do we actually safely obtain the blood from those donors. Although there are blood systems in each of the countries, what we need to do is something that is over and above the usual blood collection activities. And we're trying to work out how best we can support that.

GREENE: Could this be, I mean, the treatment for Ebola if this sort of is a proven treatment at some point? I mean, this would be the treatment that you turn to in outbreaks like this?

WOOD: It's very early to tell. I mean, there are range of different treatment options that are being looked at, and WHO is taking forward and trying to accelerate access to all of the different treatment options and vaccines that are in the pipeline. We are actually convening a meeting here in Geneva two weeks from now where we will review all of the different treatment options to give us a sense of, you know, where we are and which of the treatment options are going to be more promising. It's still early days in terms of treatment options, and I think this next meeting early in September will be an important milestone to give us a sense of which of the ones we should be really working on as the priority.

GREENE: All right. Dr. Wood, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

WOOD: Pleasure, thank you very much.

GREENE: That's Dr. David Wood from the WHO on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.