Researchers from South Australia’s Flinders University, Australia’s CSIRO and Atlanta’s Emory University in America have made a breakthrough discovery in the fight to control the highly contagious ebola disease.

Up to a year post-infection, ebola can remain in the human eye, with up to a quarter of ebola survivors remaining infected with uveitis. Uveitis is a disease of the eye that can cause diminished sight or cause blindness, and allows for continued carrying of the virus. It has been discovered that epithelial cells in the eye have the potential to fight the ebola virus, or possibly the power to contain it.

The ebola virus is highly evolved, and is so successful partly because it has the ability to shut down a cell’s defence mechanism – though the eye’s epithelial cells seem to be resistant.

The cells in question are a single layer that sit under the retina at the back of the eye, acting as a protective barrier. While ebola is able to multiply in the retinal pigment when surrounded by epithelial cells, tests show that ebola’s ability to destroy a cell’s defence mechanism does not effect epithelial cells. What this means is that epithelial cells could continue to fight the ebola virus, or possibly surround and contain it before it spreads throughout the body.

The discovery was made while examining a scar in the eye of the “sickest person to ever survive ebola”, Ian Crozier. Crozier is an American aid worker/physician who contracted ebola while working in Sierra Leone during the 2014 outbreak. An ebola survivor and uveitis sufferer, Crozier’s case led scientists to discover ebola’s ability to remain dormant in the human eye, but also the immunity of epithelial cells.

Leading the research is South Australian scientist Justine Smith who has been making headway in ebola research in recent years. After infecting cells with ebola, Dr Smith discovered the resistant qualities of epithelial cells. Understanding what gives them this resistance will be key in future research. Their ability to limit the spread and activity of ebola has already caused them to be dubbed “super-cells.” The eye now joins the testes, placenta, breast milk and the central nervous system as locales able to continue carrying the virus post-recovery.