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Funds Provided for Developing RNA-Based Zika Vaccine

Baby with microcephaly

Baby with microcephaly (Harold Ruiz, PAHO)

7 October 2016. Researchers from Infectious Disease Research Institute, or Idri, are receiving funding from National Institutes of Health to develop a new type of vaccine for the Zika virus. The team led by scientists Dan Stinchcomb and Neal van Hoeven will receive $491,000 over 2 years from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of NIH, for preclinical work on a vaccine that Idri says can be produced faster than with current processes.

The Zika virus is transmitted primarily by aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the same species carrying chikungunya, dengue, and yellow fever pathogens. The virus may also be spread through sexual contacts. Most people contracting the Zika virus report symptoms such as mild fever, conjunctivitis or pink eye, and muscle and joint pain. The current Zika outbreak, however, is resulting in increasing numbers of cases of birth defects, notably microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports as of 29 September 2016, some 3,800 Zika cases in U.S. states and more than 24,000 cases in U.S. territories, with 837  pregnant women showing evidence of Zika infection in U.S. states and another 1,638 pregnant women with Zika infections in U.S. territories. There are currently no treatments for Zika infections, nor is there a vaccine to prevent infections.

Idri, in Seattle, is a not-for-profit enterprise that addresses global health challenges with development of diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments for diseases getting little attention from pharmaceutical companies. The organization has programs underway for tuberculosis, leprosy, the parasitic disease leishmaniasis, and other human and animal disorders. Idri works largely through alliances with foundations and government and international health agencies.

Stinchcomb, van Hoeven, and colleagues plan to apply Idri’s RNA platform to develop the vaccine. Zika is a positive single-strand RNA virus that encodes messenger RNA and proteins. Idri’s platform synthesizes RNA for antigens, proteins that generate antibodies to counter RNA from the Zika virus, thus creating an immunity against the virus. Idri also developed a method for increasing its potency, delivering the vaccine with adjuvants, or boosters, in tiny nanoscale lipid, or natural oil, bubbles.

An advantage of this platform, says Idri, is the speed with which it can develop and produce a vaccine. “RNA encoding protein antigens can be rapidly synthesized and manufactured,” says Stinchcomb in an Idri statement. “And we can manufacture these vaccines more rapidly because RNA vaccines are fully synthetic and don’t require growth in eggs, cells, or bacteria. When delivered, the RNA vaccine can effectively induce protective immune responses quickly.”

The NIH grant funds lab research at Idri to isolate Zika virus vaccine candidates that show the most promise in preventing expression of viral proteins. The top candidates will then be combined with the delivery mechanism for proof-of-concept tests in mice.

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