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A team of University of Utah biochemists say they've discovered a tool — part of a protein — they hope will lead to a treatment for all current and future strains of Ebola.

Debra Eckert and Michael Kay are the senior authors on a study published in the latest online edition of the journal Protein Science. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

"This is step one toward developing a universal drug, but it's an important step," said Kay, a physician and professor of biochemistry.

Christopher Basler, a researcher with the Mount Sinai Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute, said the Utah researchers are taking a different approach than others looking for Ebola treatments — and that's important.

"It's more likely to broadly block multiple Ebola viruses," said Basler, who was not involved in the U. study.

"Whether this proves to be better than others remains to be seen."

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is renewing interest in research, and although some treatments and vaccines are being rushed into clinical trials, none has yet been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As of this week, the latest Ebola epidemic has infected 7,492 and killed 3,439, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"Suddenly, people (researchers) who had no interest in Ebola are very interested in Ebola and that's a good thing," Basler said.

The U. researchers — joined by scientists in John Dye's laboratory at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) — have been working on the discovery for years.

Basically, they found a small region of a protein in the Ebola virus that is common to all five known Ebola strains, which means it does not easily mutate and likely will be in future strains of the disease.

The protein, on the surface of the virus, allows entry into human cells. "If you block this region, you will block the entry of the virus into the cells…and prevent infection," Kay said.

From there, researchers engineered an artificial version of that region of the protein, so that scientists can test potential drugs, or mirror-image peptide inhibitors (D-peptides).

The idea is to find a drug that blocks the protein to prevent infection and to stop the spread of the virus in those already infected, he said.

The team previously developed D-peptide inhibitors for HIV, and is adapting the approach to Ebola research. The team's HIV drugs are in preclinical studies.

The most promising Ebola treatment so far is ZMapp, which was used to treat a handful of patients, including the first two Americans who returned from Liberia for treatment in the United States in August.

But there is no more ZMapp now available. A cocktail of three anti-bodies, it's expensive to produce and difficult to make quickly or in volume because it is grown in plants.

While the U. holds the patent on the drug-target protein, the Salt Lake City pharmaceutical company Navigen Inc. has licensed rights to its use.

The U. researchers have an ownership stake in Navigen, and Navigen's Brett Welch, a former student of Kay's, is on the Ebola research team.

Basler, at Mount Sinai, said the U. team is likely best prepared to use its own tool to find a drug to treat Ebola, "but it may inspire other people to take similar but different approaches to go after the same target."

Kay said the researchers will provide the artificial protein — or the recipe for making it — to any interested researchers free of charge. If a drug therapy results, however, the university and Navigen will stand to gain financially.

Eckert said the current push for clinical trials of experimental drugs might lead to effective treatments for the Zaire strain of Ebola causing the current epidemic. But such drugs might not work against future strains of the virus, which mutates quickly.

The value of the U. discovery is that it could lead to a drug that treats all Ebola viruses, she said in a news release.

"Development of a broadly acting therapy is an important long-term goal that would allow cost-effective stockpiling of a universal Ebola treatment," Eckert said.

Twitter: @KristenMoulton