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19th-century advances paved way for Ebola treatment

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The antibody treatment given to two American missionaries infected with the Ebola virus may seem like a modern-day miracle cure, but researchers created similar, if cruder, antibody therapies as far back as the 1880s to treat diphtheria and pneumonia. That interesting revelation was detailed by Dr. Scott Podolosky, associate professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a paper published last Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Monoclonal antibodies used in the Ebola treatment first came on the scene in the 1970s and can home in on specific strains of viruses with pinpoint accuracy, Podolosky said. Antibodies used in the late 19th to early 20th century, on the other hand, targeted general types of diphtheria and pneumonia viruses working like a miracle cure for some, while failing miserably in others.

In fact, the term “magic bullet” was first coined in 1913 to describe the swift recovery of some patients following antibody treatments. In pneumonia patients, the antibody treatments reduced the death rate down to about 8 percent of patients, compared to a death rate of 25 percent in those who didn’t get the treatments. But penicillin proved to be even more effective, Podolosky explained, so antibody treatments were quickly replaced in the 1940s with newer antibiotics. D.K.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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