A Cure for Ebola?

There’s some worrisome news that a patient is being quarantined and tested for Ebola in a New York City hospital today. But the really stunning news is much more possible. Faced with the probable rapid death of two American doctors who’d become infected with Ebola while treating patients in Liberia, US authorities made the extraordinary decision to offer an experimental drug that had never been tested on humans and and only had very limited testing on monkeys.

The upshot is that it seemed to work. ‘Work’ is a pretty malleable word in this context. Both Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol remain sick. And testing on two people is, to put it mildly, an extremely small sample. But the results appear to have been dramatic.

Here’s the key passage from a report posted about a half hour ago on CNN

Brantly asked that Writebol be given the first dose because he was younger and he thought he had a better chance of fighting it, and she agreed. However, as the first vial was still thawing, Brantly’s condition took a sudden turn for the worse.

Brantly began to deteriorate and developed labored breathing. He told his doctors he thought he was dying, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the situation.

Knowing his dose was still frozen, Brantly asked if he could have Writebol’s now-thawed medication. It was brought to his room and administered through an IV. Within an hour of receiving the medication, Brantly’s condition dramatically improved. He began breathing easier; the rash over his trunk faded away. One of his doctors described the events as “miraculous.”

By the next morning, Brantly was able to take a shower on his own before getting on a specially designed Gulfstream air ambulance jet to be evacuated to the United States.

Writebol also received a vial of the medication. Her response was not as remarkable, according to sources familiar with the treatment. However, doctors on Sunday administered Writebol a second dose of the medication, which resulted in significant improvement.

Here’s a good link for a more technical look at this development from ArsTechnica, including links to research papers on the drug researchers on-going work on the regimen in question.

Reporting on something like this is always treacherous because the evidence is so limited. And we don’t know the eventual progress of Brantly and Writebol’s condition. But assuming the facts are basically as reported, this does sound like a pretty big step forward for a disease doctors have had few if any tools to combat.

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