Ancient plagues are being used by scientists to find ways to stop deadly modern pathogens, including viruses such as Ebola.

Researchers from Duke Medicine and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore said diseases such as the bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis or Y. pestis) can provide vital information on how the body responds to infections.

"The recent Ebola outbreak has shown how highly virulent pathogens can spread substantially and unexpectedly under the right conditions," said lead author Ashley L St John. "This emphasizes that we need to understand the mechanisms that pathogens use to spread so that we can be prepared with new strategies to treat infection."

Published in the journal Immunity, researchers looked at the Yersinia pestis bacteria that cause bubonic plague. They found the bacteria hitch-hikes on immune cells to ride into the lungs and blood stream, where it can then be transmitted to others.

Their findings provide clues as to how to develop therapies to block this pathway, rather than trying to destroy the pathogen itself.

This could help in the development of treatments to stop viruses such as Ebola. The current outbreak in West Africa has killed over 2,000 people and infected thousands more.

St John and her colleagues said there are a number of drug candidates that could be used to target the trafficking pathways that the bubonic plague bacteria use. In animals, researchers were able to use therapies to stop the bacteria from reaching systematic infection, meaning survival and recovery was dramatically improved.

"This work demonstrates that it may be possible to target the trafficking of host immune cells and not the pathogens themselves to effectively treat infection and reduce mortality," she said. "In view of the growing emergency of multi-resistant bacteria, this strategy could become very attractive."