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19th century advances paved way for today’s Ebola treatment

A nurse and a doctor demonstrated the decontamination procedure at a hospital in Berlin, Germany.Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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 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.

Dr. Kent Brantly, one of the two Americans infected with the Ebola virus in Liberia who was transferred to Emory Hospital for treatment, was reportedly near the point of death after receiving a different experimental treatment. After getting the monoclonal antibody treatment, called ZMapp, Brantly began to recover “within an hour of receiving the medication ... [and] 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,” reported CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


Whether ZMapp actually was a miracle cure remains to be seen, Podolosky said, since other factors could have played a role in the apparent upswing of both patients. They started off in good health and were quickly treated in a hospital when they first developed symptoms, for example, and have since been receiving state of the art medical care in the US, which will hopefully keep them on the road to recovery.

“It’s hard to say how much of a miracle cure this is when it has so far only been given to two patients,” he added. “But the larger question is how do you get these magic bullets to the larger group of people that really need them including those who can’t or won’t go to hospitals?”

More coverage:

One more Ebola case confirmed in Nigeria

Digital health map tracks new Ebola cases in real time

Evan Horowitz: What are your chances of getting Ebola?

Infected aid workers given experimental Ebola drug

Few preparations in event of Ebola in US

Spread of Ebola virus outpaces control efforts

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