Rabies, a neurological disease that has long challenged researchers, remains fatal for those who develop it. A cure for rabies may be possible, according to a new UGA study, if virus-neutralizing antibodies can pass through the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system, remove the rabies virus and reverse the disease process.
The study, co-authored by Zhen F. Fu, a professor and veterinary virologist in the department of pathology of the College of Veterinary Medicine, is available online and will be published in the print edition of Antiviral Research this month.
In the study, the researchers tested how virus-neutralizing antibodies could cure rabies if passed through the blood-brain barrier. The blood-brain barrier physically separates the peripheral organs (heart, lung, liver, etc.) from the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord). Antibodies are too large to cross the blood-brain barrier; only certain nutrients can pass through it.
“Prior studies showed that antibodies were needed to cure rabies,” Fu said. “The blood-brain barrier is very difficult to pass through. The human body works to protect itself and not allow harmful molecules to pass through. We have to find a way to enhance the blood-brain barrier permeability to allow the antibodies to pass through it so we can cure rabies.”
The research team used mice to test whether virus-neutralizing antibodies, administered intravenously, can cross the blood-brain barrier and remove rabies virus from the central nervous system.
The findings indicate that antibodies, when given in combination with drugs that make the blood-brain barrier more permeable, could remove the virus from the central nervous system before the disease process sets in and symptoms manifest.
A longtime rabies researcher, Fu believes this study is a big step toward a cure for rabies in humans.
“This could lead to virus-neutralizing antibody therapy for people,” he said. “It’s hard to see patients deal with this fatal disease. We hope this leads to better treatment and the eventual cure of patients with rabies.”
Co-authors include Chien-Tsun Huang and Qingqing Chai, both doctoral students in Fu’s lab (Chai is now a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University); Ming Zhou and Zhenguang Li, both visiting scientists from China; Ying Huang and Guoging Zhang, both postdoctoral research scientists in Fu’s lab; and Hua Wu, a scientist at State Key Laboratory of Special Economic Animal Molecular Biology in China.