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Australian scientists find super cells that could contain Ebola

09/08/2017By Matthew Woodley
The discovery of a “super cell” within the eye by a team of scientists from Flinders University may help contain future outbreaks of the devastating Ebola virus.

According to the researchers, retinal pigment epithelial (RPE) cells may act as a “reservoir” for Ebola and prevent it from spreading further. This is because while Ebola is able to multiply readily in the RPE cells, an unexpectedly strong anti-viral response has the potential to stop it from reaching other parts of the body.


"In terms of how they seem to be able to limit Ebola activity and protect the human carrier from further infection, these epithelial cells appear to be something of a super cell."
Professor Justine Smith

Importantly, it appears the RPE cells also express molecules that could limit the ability of white blood cells to fight the infection, helping to ward off the damaging inflammation often associated with the body’s immune response to the virus. By not attempting to kill the virus, the eyes are able to contain it while also avoiding further damage to the host.

Professor Justine Smith, an ophthalmologist from Flinders’ medical school, said with further investigation the findings may be able to help control and manage the spread of Ebola.

“While it might appear to be a bad thing that the eyes can harbour Ebola, this is not necessarily true if what we are looking at is actually a very clever containment of the virus by epithelial cells,” she says.

“Why this is so interesting is that Ebola employs powerful mechanisms to interfere with a cell’s ability to fight virus infection. In spite of these mechanisms, we see a situation develop where Ebola is contained in the eye and does not seem to be able to spread.

“In terms of how they seem to be able to limit Ebola activity and protect the human carrier from further infection, these epithelial cells appear to be something of a super cell.”

The scientists stumbled on the discovery by chance after scars found on the retina of an Ebola virus survivor led them to examine his epithelial cells. They then took some REP cells back to the CSIRO and infected them with Ebola, in order to determine which were, and were not, being affected.

Additional research will be dedicated to further understanding how the cell is able to contain a virus that killed 11,310 people and affected more than 28,000 during an outbreak in west Africa between December 2013 and January 2016.

IMAGE TOP: Professor Justine Smith, Flinders University.

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