Saint Louis University vaccine researchers have received $1.3 million in federal funding to study Zika, as part of a multi-site study funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.
SLU and other Vaccine Treatment and Evaluation Unit (VTEU) contractors will study the immune responses of 200 volunteers who have been diagnosed with or have symptoms of Zika, which causes serious birth defects.
SLU scientists will conduct laboratory work, analyzing blood specimens of study volunteers, to learn about how the body's immune system responds to Zika virus infection. The contract award to SLU could climb as high as $2.6 million, depending on the number of cases SLU scientists analyze.
Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine will recruit volunteers who traveled to or had sexual contact with someone who traveled to places where Zika is circulating locally and have been diagnosed with or have symptoms of Zika virus. If Zika starts to circulate in the U.S., patients who have locally acquired infection also will be eligible to participate in the research. SLU, Emory and Baylor are among the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' network of VTEUs.
Understanding the natural history of the disease and the body's immune response could help researchers identify targets for treatments and vaccines, other strategies for protection and potential long-term health effects of the virus, said Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., leader of the initiative at SLU and director of SLU's division of infectious diseases.
"We're in the midst of a global public health emergency because of how fast the virus has spread. Our ability to rapidly respond to emerging threats is part of why VTEUs exist - to protect the public in a timely fashion," Hoft said.
"Our work is important for national preparedness, national protection and, most importantly, for future children who could have terrible birth defects."
SLU researchers will examine the role of T cells, a type of white blood cell that recognizes the presence of a foreign invader and destroys it or helps other cells initiate an attack. They will focus on if and how T cells protect the body from Zika, what part of the virus provokes a response and the impact of T cells on the progression of the disease.
"We're particularly looking at what part of the virus would make a good target for a vaccine," Hoft said.
In addition, T cell analysis can help scientists develop better ways to detect past and current Zika infections and learn more about complications of the disease and protective immunity.
Zika can cause microcephaly (smaller than normal heads) and severe brain damage and other birth defects in infants of women who are infected during pregnancy. In others infected with Zika virus, it also can lead to a Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare nerve disorder that starts with tingling in the hands or feet that can progress to short- or long-term paralysis of the entire body.
While Zika virus is most often spread by an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito, it can also be transmitted through sexual contact. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mosquitoes that can spread Zika already are in parts of 30 states, mostly in the south but as far north as San Francisco, Kansas City and New York City.