An international group of scientists is to test whether antibodies from the blood and serum of Ebola survivors are safe and can help infected people fight the virus. Trials are due to start in Guinea in a few weeks.

The scientists, led by the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp, Belgium, have received €2.9 million ($3.7 million) from the European Union (EU) to fund the project.

If the trial is successful, then blood and serum from recovered Ebola patients – so-called convalescent serum – could be quickly scaled up to provide short-term treatments for patients in West Africa while drugs and vaccines are developed.

Substantial numbers of people who became infected in the current Ebola outbreak have survived.

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A project funded by the EU will assess the safety and effectiveness of using blood and plasma from Ebola patients to help infected people fight the virus.

In September, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) said after a meeting on Ebola treatments and vaccines, that “use of whole blood therapies and convalescent blood serums needs to be considered as a matter of priority.”

Dr. Johan van Griensven, a researcher at ITM and coordinating investigator for the project, says treatments using blood and plasma have been around for a long time and have proved safe for other infectious diseases. He adds:

“We want to find out whether this approach works for Ebola, is safe and can be put into practice to reduce the number of deaths in the present outbreak.”

Dr. Griensven suggests when people in the communities affected see Ebola survivors helping to stop the epidemic by donating blood, they will become less fearful and more accepting of treatment.

Blood and plasma from recovered patients has been used before to treat Ebola infection. In the 1995 outbreak in Kikwit, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), eight patients were treated with convalescent serum, seven of whom survived. But it was not clear whether they would have survived anyway, hence the need for carefully designed and controlled trials.

The €2.9 million grant is part of a larger fund of €24.4 million ($30.9 million) that the EU is giving to five projects, including this one.

The other projects include a large-scale clinical trial of a potential vaccine and trials to test new compounds to treat Ebola. The money is being fast-tracked from the EU research and innovation program Horizon 2020.

José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission (EC), says:

We’re in a race against time on Ebola, and we must address both the emergency situation and at the same time have a long term response.”

Medical News Today recently learned that experts are also calling for an investigation into how widespread immunity to Ebola might be. They say lives could be saved – for example by recruiting people with natural immunity to assist with disease control – if we knew whether a large segment of the population in the afflicted regions is immune to Ebola.