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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News

A tweaked version of an experimental Ebola drug can save monkeys already sick with fever from the virus, researchers reported Wednesday.

The drug is matched precisely to the strain of Ebola that’s ravaged West Africa. It’s infected more than 26,000 people and killed more than 10,000 of them in the past year.

Made by Canadian company Tekmira, the drug targets the virus’s ability to infect on a genetic level, using what are called small interfering RNAS or siRNA.

"We modified the TKM-Ebola so the sequence is identical to the outbreak strain now," said Thomas Geisbert of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, who tested the drug.

All three monkeys infected with the West African strain of Ebola who got the drug lived, while untreated monkeys died, they report in the journal Nature.

There's no drug specifically approved to treat Ebola, which has killed 60 percent to 70 percent of patients in this epidemic. But several are being tested, including Tekmira’s drug, the infusion ZMapp, made using tobacco plants, and another pill called brincidofovir. Several vaccines are also being tested in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

One scientific challenge to the effort is that the epidemic is waning, said Geisbert. It may be hard to try the drug in enough patients to see if it's truly helping them recover. "You can't claim success if you're treating someone who is already recovering," Geisbert said.

"You also can't be charged with failure if you treat someone 24 hours before they die, anyway."


-- Maggie Fox