Bioethics Blogs

Using Genomics to Follow the Path of Ebola

Ebola virus

Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of filamentous Ebola virus particles (blue) budding from a chronically infected VERO E6 cell (yellow-green).
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Long before the current outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) began in West Africa, NIH-funded scientists had begun collaborating with labs in Sierra Leone and Nigeria to analyze the genomes and develop diagnostic tests for the virus that caused Lassa fever, a deadly hemorrhagic disease related to EVD. But when the outbreak struck in February 2014, an international team led by NIH Director’s New Innovator Awardee Pardis Sabeti quickly switched gears to focus on Ebola.

In a study just out in the journal Science [1], this fast-acting team reported that it has sequenced the complete genetic blueprints, or genomes, of 99 Ebola virus samples obtained from 78 patients in Sierra Leone. This new genomic data has revealed clues about the origin and evolution of the Ebola virus, as well as provided insights that may aid in the development of better diagnostics and inform efforts to devise effective therapies and vaccines.

To help advance such research, Sabeti’s team deposited its Ebola genome sequences, even prior to publication, in a database run by NIH’s National Center for Biotechnology Information’s (NCBI), which means the data is immediately and freely available to researchers around the world. Access to this genomic data should accelerate international efforts to figure out ways of detecting, treating, and, ultimately, preventing infection by this deadly virus.

Sophisticated genomic analyses by Sabeti and her colleagues show that the current Ebola Virus Disease outbreak most likely originated less than a year ago with a single person, starting at the funeral of a traditional healer in Guinea and eventually spreading to Sierra Leone and other nations.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.