Health officials all over the world are racing to stem the spread of the Zika virus, transmitted through the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. Earlier this year the World Health Organization (WHO) “declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern… because of clusters of microcephaly and other neurological disorders in some areas affected by Zika,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the virus remains a recognized threat — when contracted by pregnant women in the early stages of pregnancy, it can cause birth defects such as microcephaly in newborn children — scientists at Birmingham-based Southern Research announced Tuesday that they had developed a test, or assay, for detecting the Zika virus in infected cell cultures.
Dr. Raj Kalkeri, the project leader of In Vitro Antiviral Drug Development at SR’s Department of Infectious Disease Research, explained the importance of the development.
Weld: Why is the arrival of this assay so important at the present time?
Kalkeri: Currently, scientists around the globe are looking for strategies to stop the spread of Zika virus. Unfortunately, currently there are no known prophylactic or therapeutic measures for Zika. The assay developed by Southern Research is going to be useful to find a treatment for Zika virus in the lab and will be useful in the development of treatment strategies.
Weld: Do you have any personal experience with Zika, or does someone at SR?
Kalkeri: Zika is an arbovirus (arthropod borne virus) primarily transmitted through mosquitoes. We have significant arbovirus expertise at Southern Research including our director of Infectious Disease Research, Dr. Jonathan Rayner, who received his Ph.D. at the arthropod-borne and infectious diseases laboratory at Colorado State University and performed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the CDC Division of Arthropod-borne Infectious Diseases. Another researcher, Fusataka Koide, has developed in vivo model for Dengue virus and supported clinical development of several vaccine candidates. This in house expertise is very useful to channelize our efforts into Zika virus research.
More specifically, I have a classmate [Brian Foy, currently an associate professor at Colarado State University] with whom I studied my doctorate at Tulane University [in] New Orleans. He came down with Zika virus infection after [a] trip to Senegal and passed on the infection to his wife. This is the first reported case of Zika virus [via] sexual transmission.
Weld: How long has SR been working on this assay?
Kalkeri: We have been working on this assay over the last few months. It was a bit challenging to get different Zika isolates from diverse places.
Weld: Is this the only such test? If not, what makes this one better than what already exists?
Kalkeri: The novelty of this assay is in being able to detect the Zika virus production in the supernatants of infected cell cultures in a medium throughput and its utility to detect antivirals and finding a treatment for Zika virus. Since it uses a very sensitive assay (polymerase chain reaction), it can detect weak antivirals against Zika.
Weld: Has this development been funded by the government? If so, please explain how that worked.
Kalkeri: This assay was developed through internal funding [by Southern Research]. We are currently in the process of requesting additional funding from the government.
Weld: What exactly does this assay make possible?
Kalkeri: There could be multiple uses of this assay. Since this assay enables the detection of Zika virus in the supernatant of infected cells, it could be a useful tool for the identification of antivirals against Zika virus, monitoring resistance development to antivirals, finding drugs which can block viral infection, etc.
Weld: Who would you expect to use this?
Kalkeri: This assay could be useful to biotechs, pharmaceutical companies and researchers trying to develop a treatment for Zika virus.
Weld: Where does this assay fit into efforts to find a vaccine or cure?
Kalkeri: The very first step in finding a Zika virus cure involves evaluation of the antivirals in susceptible cells in the test tube and looking for their ability to block viral infection and replication. This assay would enable the researchers to test whether they can inhibit Zika virus in the cell culture before transitioning into in vivo efficacy testing.
For more information, visit southernresearch.org/news.