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Hometown U: UAA professor uses Ebola to teach virology

Ebola creates a human death only Hollywood could love. The stealth of infection followed by a feverish body puddled in blood -- it’s the stuff of nightmare. Storylines from movies like “Outbreak” and “Hot Zone” linger long after the popcorn, seeding pandemic scenarios that haunt.

So no, Eric Bortz, an assistant professor in biological science at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is never surprised when undergraduates arrive in his virology class, all schooled up on Ebola. They’ve watched the big screen, scanned the headlines; they’re interested.

Bortz sends them to discover the facts. This fall, his students will run an outbreak detection exercise not unlike the World Health Organization’s current effort in West Africa.

One of the first things they learn about the filovirus is that transmission is through contact with infected body fluids. It’s not airborne, as fictionalized movies suggest.

They also learn how lethal it is. Data from last Monday showed a case fatality rate of 55 percent. “Incredibly high,” Bortz said. The 1918 pandemic flu averaged 1 to 3 percent, he said, though figures were higher in isolated communities.

Small groups of Bortz’s students will investigate different aspects of an Ebola outbreak, from epidemiology to molecular biology, to how social factors like travel and burial rituals affect spread of the virus. Animal and human ecology is important, since doctors suspect initial cases are from fruit bat-to-human transmission. Others will look at immune response, and whether vaccines or drug treatments might be possible.

“It’s a good way to introduce all the aspects of virology,” Bortz said. He’s one of a handful of virologists in the state, arriving here on the heels of post-doctoral work with antiviral proteins at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

Bortz brought with him a working role in a National Institute of Health-funded influenza-fighting network with global partnerships, responsible for surveillance of domestic and wild bird populations and other species like swine and marine mammals. It’s called the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance, or CEIRS.

While Ebola research is handled in another arm of the NIH, CEIRS’ relationship with the federal funder means that network could be tapped for support, too.

“The way they have it set up," Bortz said, “the NIH can provide you with resources and ask you to work on anything of potential health interest and potential health threat.”

For now, CEIRS remains focused on respiratory pathogens. But there’s drama there, too. A CEIRS colleague, Ron Fouchier of Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, sequenced the genome for a new virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome, first reported in 2012. He was able to identify it as a new coronavirus, never seen before.

Another CEIRS member, virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, works on both influenza and Ebola.

Though influenza transmission is airborne, making an influenza outbreak potentially faster-spreading than Ebola, both are viruses that encode their genetic information in RNA. Bortz notes that a new drug called T-705, used to inhibit influenza virus replication, may hold similar potential against Ebola, based on recent research in animal models of infection.

Still Bortz, a virologist focused on influenza, is very engaged with what’s unfolding in those four West African countries -- Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. One of his undergraduate researchers, Mark Alday, already is poring over WHO data sets.

“We are going to try to do two things with it,” Bortz said. “One is to make a map, looking at patterns of emergence through time. We know it spreads within small rural communities; we can watch that happen through the WHO data. Then we can compare that to older models of transmission; do they apply to this current case?”

They also plan to generate a “what data do we need” list for Ebola, much like the one they have already created for influenza. And they’d like to standardize data presentation so researchers doing complex analyses will find the information easier to work with.

One of the surprises of Ebola that fascinates Bortz and other virologists is just how it overtakes the human host, something scientists have only recently discovered.

“It’s pretty fast and debilitating,” Bortz said. Incubation can be as short as two days or as long as three weeks, making the task of tracing potential contacts extremely difficult and exhausting.

When viruses attack humans, their immune system kicks in, often recognizing a virus by its RNA genome and mounting an antiviral defense. But Ebola manages to mask its RNA, blocking that first critical immune response and paralyzing the entire immune system. This gives Ebola precious time to reproduce and dig in.

In “How Ebola kills,” a recent post in DNA Science, geneticist Rickie Lewis writes eloquently about Ebola’s simple but lethal structure. It has only seven protein-encoding genes; humans have more than 20,000.

“The irony of it all is stunning,” Lewis writes. “A seven-gene ‘infectious particle,’ so streamlined it isn’t even a cell, isn’t even alive, can reduce a human body to a puddle, inner barriers dissolving into nothingness, within days.”

Something more than Hollywood keeps Ebola on our minds.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.