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Pitt research offers hope against Zika

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Oct. 3, 2016, 11:12 p.m.
In this Jan. 18, 2016, file photo, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquires a blood meal on the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo's University in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In this Jan. 18, 2016, file photo, a female Aedes aegypti mosquito acquires a blood meal on the arm of a researcher at the Biomedical Sciences Institute in the Sao Paulo's University in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
This January 2016 microscope image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the Zika virus.
This January 2016 microscope image provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the Zika virus.

Two vaccines developed at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine may prove helpful in the fight against the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Both vaccines were tested on female mice and their babies, but researchers said Monday that they're at least a year away from testing them on humans.

The research results were published online Monday and will be in the November issue of EBioMedicine, a medical journal.

“The next step for us is to refine the technology and move it forward with clinical testing in humans,” said Dr. Andrea Gambotto, associate professor of surgery in Pitt's School of Medicine. “We also need to determine whether manufacturing of it on a larger scale can be achieved.”

One hurdle is money, said Gambotto, who was senior author of the published findings. But he said he is encouraged that Congress last week approved $1.1 billion in long-delayed funding to battle the virus. President Obama requested $1.9 billion in February in emergency Zika funding.

“We are hopeful, now that Congress has approved the $1.1 billion bill to provide funding for Zika prevention and research, that we'll be able to do larger-scale studies to evaluate and develop this vaccine for possible human clinical trials in the future,” Gambotto said.

Zika is primarily transmitted by Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito that thrives in tropical areas and exists in the southern United States, surfacing during warmer months. The CDC linked the virus to microcephaly, an affliction in which babies are born with smaller than normal heads and often smaller, improperly developed brains.

The Zika virus, which has spread across the Caribbean and Latin America, is generally transmitted by mosquitoes, but can be passed through sex. There is no vaccine available to prevent it.

In the current study, the vaccine successfully passed immunity from the mother mice to the babies. The mothers were never infected with Zika. The baby mice, known as pups, were infected within a week of their birth.

Pups of vaccinated mothers had immunity and were much less likely to have neurological problems after infections, according to the findings. Babies from non-vaccinated mothers did not have immunity and all of them had neurological issues, with the majority dying.

One of the vaccines is administered through a patch similar to a Band-Aid, containing tiny crystals that dissolve into the skin. The second vaccine is delivered through a traditional needle and contains adenovirus, a common cold virus, presenting Zika antigens to induce immunity.

Other vaccine candidates, developed by other agencies, are in the works in the United States and other countries. Zika emerged in Brazil in May 2015.

“Because we've had to wait these seven months, we haven't been able to get a running start on some of the critically important studies to understand more fully the impacts of Zika, to establish better diagnostic tests, to improve our way of controlling mosquitoes,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Monday in a conference call with reporters.

Locally, Gambotto said he and other Pitt researchers began working on the experimental vaccines in late 2015. UPMC and Pitt's department of surgery funded the research.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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