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This illustration depicts the Ebola virus and proteins on its surface that may provide targets for new drugs that could help treat or prevent Ebola infections. (Photo courtesy of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Computational Medicine)

Ebola-fighting software tool unveiled

Fighting Ebola isn’t just the job for physicians and clinical researchers. Computer scientists are joining in, as well.

Biomedical engineers at Johns Hopkins University have developed a free software tool they hope could help speed up the creation of new anti-Ebola drugs.

The MuPIT Ebola Edition “enables a researcher to visualize Ebola gene mutations in the context of three-dimensional protein structures,” Hopkins officials said in a news release.

The software also allows researchers to view sites on the surface of proteins called epitopes — sites that antibodies bind to — that could become new targets for preventive vaccines or serums to treat those who are already infected.

“Learning more about the mutations and binding sites can be enormously valuable in developing new and better ways to treat Ebola patients and, ideally, to keep the virus from infecting people in the first place,” Hopkins associate professor Rachel Karchin, who supervised the project, said in a statement.

“Understanding the evolutionary and functional importance of mutations in the Ebola genome is important,” Karchin continued, “because it can help us anticipate how the virus will change in the future and then help us to design vaccines capable of neutralizing the virus and protecting against infection.”

MuPIT, which is short for Mutation Position Imaging Toolkit, was designed to link up with the new Ebola Genome Browser, a tool recently released by the University of California, Santa Cruz. The Ebola Genome Browser provides detailed genetic information about the deadly virus.

MuPIT works with that browser to provide 3-D views of Ebola’s proteins, so it’s easier for researchers to “interpret the functional implications of mutations and their relationship to Ebola virus evolution and its potential vulnerabilities,” officials said in a statement.

“It is exciting to see our work in genomics come to life in 3-D using MuPIT,” David Haussler, a bioinformatics researcher at UCSC, said in a statement. “It brings an important new dimension to the Ebola portal for those battling the outbreak.”

The current Ebola outbreak has so far killed about 5,500 people, almost all of them in West Africa.

About Alissa Gulin

Alissa Gulin covers health care, education and general business at The Daily Record.