A feature in USA Today carries the story that clinical trials of what might be “the first effective tools to use against the deadly germ (the West Nile Virus) that has swept across the country since it’s arrival in 1999.” The research and development of what may prove to be a life-saving vaccine took place at Ben-Gurion University in Israel; the story reached a readership of 2.3 million. ISRAEL21c also placed the story in Reuters.

EXPERIMENTAL WEST NILE DRUGS BEGIN CLINICAL TRIALS

By Anita Manning, USA TODAY
September 9, 2003

Scientists are starting clinical studies this week to test two experimental treatments for West Nile virus that could give doctors the first effective tools to use against the deadly germ that has swept across the country since its arrival in 1999.

The mosquito-borne West Nile virus can cause a range of symptoms, from mild fever and achiness to life-threatening encephalitis, or brain inflammation. Currently, no drugs are available to treat the disease, leaving doctors to treat the symptoms while patients’ immune systems struggle to overcome the infection.

A study sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is now enrolling patients already infected with West Nile to see if intravenous infusions of antibodies, substances produced by the immune system to fight infection, will prevent death or brain damage. The clinical trial will enroll about 100 patients who are hospitalized and have West Nile encephalitis or are at risk of developing it.

The antibodies were taken from the blood of Israeli blood donors, says microbiologist Bracha Rager.

Rager is one of a team of microbiologists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheva, Israel, who conducted the early research. Because West Nile is common in Israel, she says, most adults there have developed antibodies to it that protect them. Based on this research, Omrix, an Israeli company, developed the treatment that will be used in the study.

Rager says studies indicate that when given before exposure, the treatment acts as a “passive vaccine,” preventing infection, but the focus is on a treatment. “The first step is to prove antibodies can cure the disease,” she says.

In another study, scientists at AVI Biopharma of Portland, Ore., expect to begin treating patients this week with a drug based on a technology called “antisense,” which reproduces pieces of the DNA of the virus or gene the drug is trying to attack. When given to a patient, the drug binds to the part of the DNA it mirrors, making it impossible for the West Nile virus to replicate.

The company is working on similar drugs against SARS, polycystic kidney disease and cancer, says its president, Alan Timmins. He said about 30 patients will be enrolled at hospitals in Colorado and other parts of the country affected by West Nile.