Research team discovers epithelial cells in eyes can prevent spread of Ebola


A team of researchers from Flinders University, CSIRO and Emory University have discovered a super cell in the eye that might have the potential to contain the virus responsible for the spread of Ebola.

The team found that scars on the eyes of an Ebola survivor led them to retinal pigment epithelial cells that can act as a ‘reservoir’ for Ebola disease and prevent it from spreading.

The examination was conducted on a physician and Ebola survivor, Dr Ian Crozier, whose eye harboured the Ebola virus in recovery when the team commenced its investigations in the laboratory.

The researchers found that the Ebola virus can multiply readily in the retinal pigment epithelial cells, but with the potential to be kept under control by an unexpectedly strong anti-viral response.

During the study, the epithelial cells also expressed molecules that could limit the ability of white blood cells to combat infection.

This would result in reduced inflammation at the site of infection.

As the eyes would be able to contain the virus, further damage can be avoided to the host by not trying to kill the virus.

According to Flinders University professor Justine Smith, with further research, these findings can help control and manage Ebola.

"Why this is so interesting is that Ebola employs powerful mechanisms to interfere with a cell’s ability to fight virus infection."

Smith said: “While it might appear to be a bad thing that the eyes can harbour Ebola, this is not necessarily true if what we are looking at is actually a very clever containment of the virus by epithelial cells.

“Why this is so interesting is that Ebola employs powerful mechanisms to interfere with a cell’s ability to fight virus infection.

“In spite of these mechanisms, we see a situation develop where Ebola is contained in the eye and does not seem to be able to spread.

“In terms of how they seem to be able to limit Ebola activity and protect the human carrier from further infection, these epithelial cells appear to be something of a super cell.”


Image: Flinders University professor Justine Smith. Photo: courtesy of Flinders University.