New Drug May Treat Measles Outbreaks

April 25, 2014 Updated: April 25, 2014

A new drug may soon be used to address measles outbreaks, but researchers insist it’s not meant to replace vaccination.

In a Newswise teleconference with reporters on April 16, Dr. Richard Plemper from the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University and Dr. Michael Natchus from the Emory Institute for Drug Development discussed how and why the drug was developed.

Measles (also known as rubeola) is characterized by a full body rash and flu-like symptoms. It is a highly contagious virus that is transmitted through the respiratory system and can even be fatal—globally, over 150,000 die from the disease every year.

According to Plemper, measles has seen a resurgence in recent years, due to insufficient vaccination coverage in underdeveloped countries and a growing aversion to vaccination in industrialized nations.

“People [have] collectively forgotten the serious challenge of the disease and have instead focused on the perceived risks of vaccination,” he said.

Success With Ferrets

Plemper and his colleagues set out to develop a remedy that could treat outbreaks when vaccination efforts fell short. Their progress has been published in a recent issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine, highlighting a promising animal study with the new drug.

Since the researchers lacked an animal model demonstrating the features of human measles, they tested the new compound with a closely related pathogen—canine distemper virus (CDV)—which causes a measles-like disease in ferrets.

Typically, CDV means certain death for ferrets. When animals in the study received the new drug, however, they successfully recovered from the infection.

“Not only did all treated animals survive the lethal infection, but they also showed no clinical signs of disease and mounted a robust protective immune response,” Plemper said. “When we later challenged animals with a lethal viral dose, none developed any disease.”

Measles is one of the most infectious viruses known today. According to the Centers for Disease Control, those who have not been vaccinated against the virus are at an extremely high risk of catching the disease. Still, vaccination isn’t foolproof. According to a study recently published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, some people who had been vaccinated against measles not only contracted the disease, but also passed it to others.

“I want to be absolutely clear that this is not at all being developed or even conceptualized as a possible alternative to vaccination,” said Natchus of the new drug. “This is an additional option, and hopefully combined we may one day succeed at eradicating measles globally.”

Unlike vaccination, which is a preventative measure, the new drug is designed to quell an emerging outbreak. According to Plemper, it is most effective if administered during the two-week incubation period before symptoms develop. The compound works by disrupting an enzyme essential for measles replication.

The drug is still in the early stages of development. Researchers were hesitant to say when it may be available to the public. Further efficacy and safety studies are necessary to see if humans respond to the compound as well as ferrets did.

Since 2011, Western Europe and Canada have seen an enormous rise in measles outbreaks among teens and young adults. Plemper said this would be the first target age group for the drug.

*Image of “little sick girl” via Shutterstock

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