(HealthDay News) — Researchers say they’ve discovered how the deadly Ebola virus disables the immune system. They hope the findings will prove valuable in efforts to find treatments for the disease taking hundreds of lives in Africa. The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 1,000 people, and the death rate among those infected with the virus is up to 90%, according to the World Health Organization.

American researchers found that the Ebola protein VP24 disrupts a cell’s natural immune response. They said this action is an important first step on Ebola’s path to causing fatal disease, according to the study published in the August 13 issue of Cell Host & Microbe. Further research on VP24 may lead to ways to prevent the protein from blocking immune response.

“We’ve known for a long time that infection with Ebola obstructs an important immune compound called interferon. Now we know how Ebola does this, and that can guide the development of new treatments,” study author, Gaya Amarasinghe, PhD, of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a journal news release. Ebola’s VP24 protein prevents interferon’s antiviral message from entering the cell’s nucleus and triggering an immune response, the researchers explained.

“One of the key reasons that Ebola virus is so deadly is because it disrupts the body’s immune response to the infection,” Chris Basler, MD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said in the news release. “Figuring out how VP24 promotes this disruption will suggest new ways to defeat the virus.”

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