Seeking a vaccine for the Zika virus

Seeking a vaccine for the Zika virus

Seeking a vaccine for the mosquito-borne Zika virus

A University of South Australia (UniSA) research team is working with Melbourne-based biotech company Sementis Ltd to develop a vaccine to combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus which is fast becoming an urgent global health priority.

UniSA’s Experimental Therapeutics Laboratory in partnership with Sementis has developed a protective vaccine for mosquito-borne Chikungunya virus which is now in the clinical manufacturing process.

Lab head Associate Professor John Hayball hopes his team can rapidly adapt the Sementis Chikungunya vaccine for Zika virus, which the World Health Organisation says is strongly suspected of causing birth defects and could infect three to four million people in the Americas over the next year. Already, Zika has been detected in 23 countries in the Americas.

Assoc Prof Hayball says Zika virus, for which there is currently no treatment, has caught the world ‘flat footed’.

“It’s really a race against the clock to find a vaccine for Zika virus and our lab is starting preclinical laboratory based experiments immediately,” Assoc Prof Hayball says.

The Experimental Therapeutics Laboratory together with Sementis developed a protective vaccine for Chikungunya virus late in 2015, and is currently finalising a contract for manufacturing clinical grade material which will be tested in toxicity studies and early phase clinical trials, with a full vaccine development process taking many years.

“The UniSA-Sementis team has taken the Chikungunya vaccine all the way through pre-clinical studies and shown it’s 100 per cent effective,” Assoc Prof Hayball says.

Zika virus is spread by the same group of mosquitoes that spread the Dengue viruses and Chikungunya virus, and are typically urban breeders called Aedes. Those infected with Zika virus may develop symptoms such as fever, rash and headache.

Assoc Prof Hayball says the work his lab has done with the Chikungunya vaccine shows the UniSA-Sementis approach with the vaccine platform is ‘rapid and effective’.

“What we’re hoping to do here is not only prove that our approach is the best way to make vaccines for emerging infectious diseases, but that we can really make a difference with this urgent situation,” he says.

An alarming development from the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil in 2015 is the strong association with microcephaly, a birth deformity linked with women who have had Zika infection. While the link between microcephaly and Zika infection has not been conclusively proven, the evidence is sufficiently strong to warrant warnings against pregnant women travelling to areas of Zika activity.

Assoc Prof Hayball says it’s not only alarming how quickly Zika has emerged as a major global health problem, but it’s particularly alarming the virus has been linked to birth defects. In addition to starting on experiments for vaccine development, Assoc Prof Hayball has started collaborating with the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute on uncovering what mechanisms of the virus might cause birth defects.

“Working closely with Sementis on the Chikungunya vaccine has provided opportunities to our nine young scientists and is a perfect example of collaboration between industry and researchers to find solutions to real world problems and to create jobs and opportunities,” Assoc Prof Hayball says.

The World Health Organisation has today declared the Zika outbreak a global health emergency. You can support this important health research.

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