U of S alumnus and tech helping in fight against Ebola

A suite of tools developed at the University of Saskatchewan is giving researchers new insights into how the Ebola virus, currently epidemic in some parts of Africa, wreaks havoc on its victims.

"It's the first time these tools have been used on Ebola specifically," said U of S alumnus and Saskatoon native Jason Kindrachuk, now with the National Institutes of Health Integrated Research Facility (IRF) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Kindrachuk led the team that discovered how Ebola interferes with a key cell signalling pathway, causing cells to become unstuck from one another, particularly in organs such as the liver. The team also discovered that a compound provides partial protection against Ebola in their experiments. Their findings are published in the Journal of Virology.

The findings were made possible by a novel software and database tool combination developed at the U of S to analyze the kinome. Kinome is the collective term for kinases - a type of enzyme involved in virtually every cellular function, from energy use and reproduction to modifying gene expression.

"Kinases have a central role in controlling cellular processes and are associated with many diseases," said Scott Napper, a collaborator on the study. "They're logical points for understanding biology and represent important treatment targets."

Napper, a senior scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac) at the U of S, worked with bioinformatics specialist and computer science professor Anthony Kusalik and graduate student Brett Trost to develop the kinome tool suite. First described in 2009 in the journal Science Signaling, Kindrachuk said the technology is still proving its worth.

"People are skeptical when a new technique is used, but the interest is there," said Kindrachuk, who founded and leads the kinome analysis group at the IRF. "We have had to push our capabilities to show the validity of what we are doing."

Kindrachuk explained that Ebola presents special challenges. It is one of the deadliest known pathogens, killing up to 90 per cent of infected patients (this drops to about 50 per cent with proper medical treatment). Researchers working with the virus must work in special Biosafety Level 4 laboratories and adhere to strict protocols, including bulky pressure suits and a separate air supply.

"People haven't looked at this in the past," he said. "It's easy at (Biosafety Level) 1, 2 and 3, but it's not so easy in space suits. We had to come up with different methodologies for the (Level 4) containment suite to allow for gloves and clumsy fingers. Dexterity is a real issue."

Kindrachuk sees much potential for kinome analysis and future cross-border collaboration with his colleagues at the U of S, but for now, his thoughts are on Africa. In September, he travelled to Monrovia, Liberia, contributing his diagnostic skills to the efforts to combat the disease in that African country.

"Expertise is limited in these countries and they need people to come in and help, particularly scientists and doctors to come, treat patients and run diagnostics," he said. "We need to get people over there, not just African countries, but the global public health community needs to contribute any way we can."


For more information, contact:


Jennifer Thoma

Media Relations

University of Saskatchewan


Share this story