UNC researchers, along with researchers from other institutions, have developed a mouse model that reproduces symptoms similar to those of humans infected by Ebola. The work was published in the academic journal Science in October.
The study is a collaboration between UNC, the University of Washington and the National Institute of Health Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.
Mark Heise, one of four co-directors of the project at UNC and professor at UNC School of Medicine, said the study will contribute to testing therapies and vaccines for Ebola and help understand how genetic variation affects susceptibility to the virus.
“It gives us information on how variation in host genes affects susceptibility to Ebola,” said Marty Ferris, also a co-director and a professor. “Nobody has done that before.”
He said the study is a team effort, bringing expertise from different places.
Fernando Pardo Manuel de Villena, a co-director of the project and a professor, said collaboration is crucial to the success of the research.
“That’s how science typically works,” said Pardo Manuel de Villena. “You have expertise from different aspects and different institutions, and not every institution has everything the same.”
Heise said they chose mice instead of other animals to formulate the model because mice are relatively cheap, and over the years, research using mice has led to the creation of more advanced tools to understand the rodent’s genetics.
“Mice have been used for over 100 years for biological researches. Over that period, there have a lot of efforts towards understanding the genetics and developing tools that are specific for mice,” he said.
Heise said there are a lot of other things that affect human health that are difficult to understand, and using a mouse model is easier for them to study how variation in genetics affects susceptibility to Ebola.
Heise said the eventual goal is to understand how genetics affect other viruses.
“The longer-term idea is that some day we will be able to say that these genes that increase your Ebola susceptibility — and they also maybe increase the susceptibility to other viruses — so you can come back to not only one disease but multiple at the same time,” he said.
“It’s really not because of the current Ebola outbreak — it’s really to answer these more fundamental questions.”
Pardo Manuel de Villena said the project has been in the works for two years and isn’t a reaction to the publicity surrounding the recent outbreak.
“It’s not a good idea to start a project when there is an outbreak — you need to start the project before because what you want to do is to be able to help when the outbreak occurs.”