Amid the agitation caused by the fast spread of Zika, especially with the upcoming Olympics in Brazil, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a contract to Birmingham-based Southern Research to expand their research on the Zika virus.
The contract, consisting of an initial $901,048 with a possibility of increasing up to nearly $3.9 million over the next two years, will allow Southern Research to develop a non-human primate model to evaluate the efficacy of vaccines and antivirals against Zika.
Zika, which is spread primarily by the bite of a mosquito, but which can be sexually transmitted as well, particularly affects pregnant women, potentially causing birth defects such as microcephaly in their infants.
Dr. Fusataka Koide, lead scientist of the NIAID contract research on Zika, explained their project.
Weld: What is the goal of the NIAID contract?
Koide: The primary goal of this task force is to develop a non-human primate model that can be used to test the efficacy of vaccine and antiviral drug candidates against Zika.
We use non-human primates for this, as the World Health Organization recommends, because they are most similar to human systems.
Weld: Why is this project important right now?
Koide: It is important, particularly in times of epidemic outbreaks, because there is no vaccine available right now.
Zika is a worldwide issue, although it affects especially endemic countries like Brazil. Those countries have an immediate need for a vaccine, and researchers all over the world are trying to accelerate the testing and approval of a drug.
However, in addition to the vaccine, there is also a need for antivirals, because there is a part of the population that cannot take vaccines — immunocompromised people, or babies and elderly who are not suitable for vaccines, for instance.
In order to find a cure for Zika, there needs to be an animal model. At present there isn’t one that has been approved by the FDA, and Southern Research has a unique opportunity to develop the first non-human primate model for this specific purpose.
But this research will not only be valuable for this particular disease; it is critical to study immunology in primate model. Not only for Zika, but also for other diseases like dengue. What we learn about Zika may be helpful against dengue, and the other way around.
Weld: With the Olympics in Rio coming soon and Zika spreading fast, do you feel like you are racing against time?
Koide: Yes, we are racing against time because the Olympics are coming up, but also because other countries and pharmaceutical companies are all looking for a cure. We always try to be ahead of the others, and work very hard to conduct accurate research that is meaningful.
Weld: Why was this project selected for the NIAID contract?
Koide: Southern Research had previously established a non-human primate model for dengue, and has been studying vaccines in this model for around 5 years. So NIAID realized we have experience in this sort of work, and we can leverage our experience and understanding of working on dengue for our research for Zika.
Doing this kind of primal research is expensive and we need external funding for that.
Weld: What does this contract mean for Southern Research in terms of recognition?
Koide: This contract is a huge win for Southern Research. It puts us in a good position to screen test drugs (vaccines and antiviral medications) to accelerate this research. This would also position Southern Research as one of the go-to organizations in the world for any pharmaceutical company, university or governmental agency looking to advance their research on a Zika vaccine or antiviral drug.
We are also exploring and reviewing the work from around the world. We are getting new data almost every week and we have several R01 grants that allow us to conduct other models to better understand how Zika affects neural tissue, etc.
NIAID funding complements our own organizational effort to study Zika through other models, and therefore allows us to take our own research to a new level.
The NIAID contract also enables us to better study virus shedding — or how quickly the virus works through an infected subject’s system. This is another growing area of global research, because it allows us to understand the lifecycle of the virus and make better recommendations on how to prevent it spread.
Southern Research is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and we are very committed to making a positive difference in the communities where we operate.