From bioengineered mosquitoes to a $5,000 seed grant, researchers in Missouri and southern Illinois are joining an international effort to stop the Zika virus.
Scientists say Zika research has been hampered by a lack of funding. Efforts were further stalled last week when the U.S. Senate split along party lines and failed to pass a $1.1 billion spending bill that included a significant boost in money for researchers around the country — many of whom have dropped other work to focus on Zika.
Zika can be transmitted sexually or through the bites of infected mosquitoes. It generally presents as a mild flu, but can cause severe birth defects, including microcephaly, if a woman becomes ill while pregnant. The virus also has been linked to Guillian-Barre syndrome, which can cause temporary paralysis. More than 2,000 people have come down with the virus in U.S. territories, where infected mosquitoes are present. About 1,000 U.S. residents have been diagnosed with Zika after traveling to affected areas.
Despite the lack of progress in the Senate, key work is underway in the St. Louis region and beyond, including:
Saint Louis University studies symptoms, tests vaccine
A $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will allow Saint Louis University’s Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Unit to study how symptoms progress in 200 volunteers who have been diagnosed with Zika.
The school has also been tapped to test a vaccine in Puerto Rico that was developed by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
“If you vaccinate women and girls before they enter their childbearing years and before they could become pregnant you’ve essentially eliminated the problem,” said Dr. Sarah George, the trial’s principal investigator. “At least that’s how we’re hoping the Zika vaccine will work.”
If the vaccine is successful, George said it’s unlikely to be available to the general public until 2018.
Washington University shifts resources to animal models
When scientists first realized that Zika, a relatively mild virus, could cause serious harm if passed from a mother to her unborn child, researchers didn’t have a good way to model that transmission in animals.
“We were working on a backdrop of very little scientific background and study for many decades,” said Dr. Michael Diamond, a virologist at Washington University.
Diamond leads one of two research teams at Wash U that have shifted a significant portion of their work to studying Zika. In May, they announced they had successfully modeled Zika transmission in pregnant mice.
“The tools that we develop not only can be used to understand these fundamental questions, but then could be used to either test drugs or target different areas that you would think about making drugs, or testing vaccines,” Diamond said.
Despite the speed of the medical community in starting Zika studies, Diamond said he’s concerned that Congress’ inaction on a funding bill is slowing the pace of research on a national scale. Though Diamond’s lab has received federal funding, he said researchers who have been cut out include those who study pregnancy, fetal development or neural stem cells.
“If you were a pre-existing grant holder with a grant that was related to Zika you could get support,” Diamond said. “The problem has been for the new people who have never worked on Zika, and have not been working in the area, yet provide critical expertise.”
A focus on genetically engineered mosquitoes
In an effort to reduce the total number of mosquitoes in areas where insect-borne diseases are common and deadly, a Creve Coeur-based biotech company called Forrest Innovations plans to release sterilized mosquitoes in Rio de Janeiro, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
In a similar strategy, a British firm called Oxitec has genetically modified the species of mosquito that can carry Zika so that its offspring cannot reproduce.
At the University of Missouri, veterinary medicine researcher Alexander Franz is trying to find a way to make mosquitoes resistant to the Zika virus itself, after doing the same with dengue.
A Western Illinois University study on how Zika gets into human cells
Earlier this year, scientists in California determined that a protein called AXL may be how the Zika virus gets into human cells. AXL happens to be a specialty of virologist Catherine Miller-Hunt, who won an internal grant competition at Western Illinois University.
With $5,000 in seed funding, Miller-Hunt will study Zika samples provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We’re confirming if the virus is using the AXL molecule to get in, and if so, how,” Miller-Hunt said. “I hope that with this grant, we can generate some preliminary data to submit to NIH, and probably try for a bigger grant here in the next year or two.”
Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.