Science is amazing, but it can also be dangerous. Nowhere does this become more apparent than for the scientists who are grappling with the latest Ebola outbreak.
During the first months of the outbreak, Health workers in Sierra Leone tasked with treating patients also were making sure that we could learn as much as possible from the outbreak as it was happening.
During May, to the middle of June, doctors working at Kenema Government Hospital took blood samples from infected patients. This was for two reasons. In the initial stages of the outbreak, they needed to actually confirm that their patients had Ebola, as in the beginning of May it hadn't yet spread to Sierra Leone. The second reason was that if patients did have Ebola, they could get a sample of it for further study.
So , what do you actually do with a test tube filled with an Ebola victim's blood, aside from handle it with EXTREME care ?
First, you need to separate the damn virus from the rest of the blood cells. The magical machine you use for this is called a centrifuge, which spins the samples of blood really fast. Blood cells of all colours end up clumping together at the side of tube, separating from the liquid, which we now call Serum. The Ebola can be found within this serum.
If we want to analyse the origins of this virus, we need to gain access to its genetic code. But that's locked up tightly within the viruses themselves, so How do we get at it ?
We have to burst those viruses open, and we can do that by adding Chaotropic salts. I love that word. Chaotropic would be the adjective I would use to describe myself if I ever became a superhero. But what does it mean ?
Chaotropic agents disrupt hydrogen bonds in proteins, which pretty much makes them lethal to all living (and debatably living) things. That includes Ebola. When the virus gets bathed in these substances, they pop open, spilling out their contents.
We are most interested in the RNA in these viruses. Whilst we use DNA for our Genomes, Ebola uses RNA instead.
Once we extract this RNA, we can use it to check for the presence of genes specific to Ebola. Using special Enzymes, you can transcribe RNA into DNA, and use probes to check for specific sequences. You can use these probes to find out for certain whether the blood sample contains Ebola or not.
Once the presence of Ebola is confirmed, the physicians working in Kenema can send off samples of Ebola RNA to collaborators at Harvard, before getting back to the grisly business of treating patients.
These RNA samples proved to be crucial to understanding the source of the ebola outbreak. As Ebola spreads between it's victims, it mutates and changes, and those changes are recorded in its genetic code. Using this information, you can build a family tree to see how each strain of Ebola relates to the others.
All of the strains were closely related to each other, and probably split off from their ancestors in Central Africa in 2004. Which corroborates evidence that bats in West Africa were carrying Ebola since at least 2006. Furthermore, we now know a lot more about the specific nuances of this outbreak, and how it spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone.
All of this would not have been possible without the brave and diligent work of the people at Kenema Government Hospital.
So often in reports about Africa, we are sold a certain story about "Africa". But just from reading this paper, you can see that really isn't the case. There are skilled people out there trying their hardest to unlock the mysteries of Ebola. They are smart, they are capable and they are brave. But they don't have all the resources they need. And there are less and less of them as this outbreak rolls on, as more of them find themselves succumbing to the infection.
You can read the paper, over at Science. The authors who died are marked with a ‡.
Why not donate to Medecins sans Frontieres (UK, Everywhere else) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent, who have been (and still are) fighting this outbreak since the very beginning.