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Susceptibility to Ebola has clear genetic underpinnings

Ebola patients show markedly different reactions to the virus. Some survive exposure; others die quickly, while still others experience hemorrhages before they die. Scientists are trying to figure out the reason why this is the case, and the answer appears to be genetic.

By studying the reactions of lab mice to the Ebola virus, researchers found that genes contribute to how the immune system reacts. Hemorrhages occur when the immune system overreacts, producing an inflammatory response that causes organs to deteriorate.

While the study did not pinpoint exactly what genes cause different mice – or, ultimately, humans – to react in different ways, it provides useful information that may eventually be used to treat the virus and prevent its spread. Machael Katze, one of the leaders of the study, is hopeful that genetic screenings will be used to predict susceptibility to Ebola.

“This paper isn’t earth shattering, but it’s the first step in being able to do this kind of genetic analysis in humans. You can go to the doctor and get your genome sequenced and find out how likely you are to get certain types of cancer. Maybe someday they’ll also say, ‘Hey, don’t go to West Africa, it looks like you’re susceptible to Ebola.’ That’s the dream.”

In the more immediate future, scientists can use mouse models to test vaccines and other potential treatments. Similar methods have been undertaken in the past to study influenza, for which genetics also determine susceptibility in both mice and humans. The next step will be to figure out what genes in humans affect how the body reacts to Ebola, and to use this information for developing an effective treatment.

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