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Penn scientists at the School of Veterinary Medicine recently discovered a protein that slows the spread of the Ebola virus.

The protein, ISG15, inhibits the spread of the virus to other cells.

This discovery - which explains a way to slow the progression of the disease - has raised hopes for the eventual development of a treatment for Ebola, which has a mortality rate of up to 90 percent.

The Ebola virus utilizes certain cell proteins when it "buds" - the process by which the virus escapes from a diseased cell in order to infect another one.

According to the findings, the newly discovered protein indirectly inhibits Ebola's budding by blocking another cell protein, Nedd4, which enables Ebola to spread effectively. Without that protein, the virus does not reproduce as quickly.

ISG15 "was known to have an anti-viral activity with other viruses like HIV," said Ronald Harty, lead author of the study and a professor in the Department of Pathobiology at Penn Vet.

There is no specific treatment or vaccination for Ebola, which was first discovered in Africa in the 1970s, but researchers say the discovery of ISG15 is a big step forward.

"In the future it may be possible to develop drugs to block virus replication," Harty said. A treatment of this kind would be similar to the drug Tamiflu, which slows reproduction of the flu virus but does not actually treat the condition, giving a person's immune system time to fight back.

Because of the threat of infection, the Penn Vet research team used the Ebola's protein particles in their research, rather than the virus itself. They were able to use information about the protein's behavior to generalize about Ebola as a whole.

Researchers said that gaining an understanding of the virus on the molecular level will bring them closer to the long term goal of successful treatment.

Penn researcher Atsushi Okumura and Paula Pitha of the John Hopkins School of Medicine also collaborated with Harty.

Both Harty and Pitha emphasized that much more time will need to be invested in studying Ebola before arriving at a treatment.

"The research is ongoing," Pitha said. "But this is a step forward."

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