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Study Finds Promising Treatment Option for MERS

Update Date: Sep 09, 2013 01:30 PM EDT

MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is a viral disease that has been circulating in the Middle East since late last year. The respiratory disease was first spotted in Saudi Arabia and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus has infected 108 people with 50 reported deaths. Due to the potential threat involved with MERS, researchers have been studying the virus in order to find ways of preventing transmission and creating treatments. In a new study, researchers used monkey models and found a treatment option that has the potential to be effective for humans.

In this study, the researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases tested a combination treatment option on half of the six rhesus monkeys they acquired. The combination treatment involved two antiviral drugs called ribavirin and interferon. The researchers infected three of the monkeys with the virus. They waited eight hours and then administered the treatment.

The researchers found that the monkeys who were given the combination therapy had lower levels of the virus in their blood. The treated monkeys also had no breathing difficulties and had minimal X-ray evidence of pneumonia. The monkeys that were not treated with the drugs became very ill. The researchers noted that the amount of monkeys used in the study was not enough but that the findings are promising.

"[The study is] not a game changer, but an important observation," the institute's director, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci said according to the New York Times. "But if I were a doctor with MERS patients, and I had nothing else to give them, I wouldn't hesitate. If someone has advanced disease, there's 50 percent mortality."

Even though this study revealed a promising treatment option, the deputy health minister of Saudi Arabia, Dr. Ziad A. Memish, stated that some of their doctors have tried this two-drug therapy on patients to no avail. Memish stated that the combination therapy was not effective but suggested that the doctors could have used the treatment too late. Regardless, more research will need to be conducted to find a treatment option for MERS. Currently, there is no set recommended treatment for this virus. Doctors have used a variety of treatment plans that include ventilators, corticosteroids and other supportive therapy.

The combination drug therapy is currently used to treat chronic hepatitis C in humans. The mixture of the drugs does yield some side effects, such as sleepiness, depression and toxicity in the red and/or white blood cells.

The study was published in Nature Medicine.

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