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Scrambling to find Ebola treatments

Some food for thought from Scientific American over why we should be cautious in the search for Ebola treatments.

Includes a nice summary of the current treatments being investigated, and the challenges in doing good science during an epidemic. From the article (emphasis mine):

The scientific quest for an at-hand answer to a horrible outbreak could actually waste time and resources and potentially endanger lives. Some people have argued that there is no time to test if licensed drugs that might work against Ebola are protective and safe in animal studies; they advocate using them in patients because of the disease's high death toll. The WHO is powerless to stop that kind of study, Friede admits. If a researcher can get financial support for a trial and secure regulatory agency approval in an Ebola-affected country and persuade staff in an Ebola treatment unit to go along with the idea, this kind of study could happen.

And will, it seems, despite the WHO's reservations. Italian doctors announced last week they will test the antiarrhythmia drug amiodarone at a treatment center in Sierra Leone. The drug has some action against Ebola virus in the test tube, but the fear is that the concentrations required for it to have an effect might be unsafe in people. Friede has reached out to the principal investigator to convey those concerns.

The situation underscores how poorly served science is when researchers do not write up negative study findings, or journals choose not to publish them. Many of the compounds being proposed have been tested against Ebola in vitro or in animal models already, but there may be no evidence of the work in the literature. Repeating the research—or worse, taking one of these failed compounds directly to the field to test in people—would be wasteful and potentially unwise.


They raise a good point about how the current state of research, which favors "sexy," high-impact results, could actually leave us in a dearth of knowledge when we need it. Adequate funding for all fields of research and encouragement to publish all results in the past would not leave us in such a bind now. Researchers are facing tough ethical issues, balanced between wanting to get potential treatments to dying patients, and risking the unknown effects of these drugs. Hopefully this is a lesson learned for why it's important to invest in research now, even when the benefits aren't immediately obvious.

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