As the Zika virus continues to spread around the world, some Latin American countries most affected by the mosquito-borne disease are working with researchers at The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston to fight the deadly epidemic.
The Brazilian Ministry of Health is collaborating with faculty researchers to develop a Zika vaccine and the university will be working with Cuban scientists at Instituto Pedro Kouri in Havana on a two-year research development program to combat infectious diseases such as Zika.
Cloning, Brain Cells and Algae
In some major Zika study developments, UTMB researchers genetically engineered a clone of the Zika virus strain, a discovery that could speed up many aspects of Zika research, including the development of vaccines and treatments.
“The new Zika clone represents a major advance toward deciphering why the virus is tied to serious diseases,” said Pei-Yong Shi, PhD, a professor who led the clone study.
Another important finding occurred when researchers discovered that Zika directly infects brains cells and evades immune system detection.
The study shows that the virus — linked to microcephaly and other birth defects in newborns — infects brain cells destined to become neurons, according to microbiologist John Schoggins, PhD, the study’s senior author, who noted that such scientific knowledge is invaluable in further understanding how Zika causes severe brain-related problems.
At UT Austin, biology professor David Herrin, PhD, is working to stop the virus by attacking its host, the Aedes mosquitos.
Herrin is combining algae with a bacterium that attacks mosquitos in places such as ponds, where their larvae grow. Right now, only the bacterium attacks the guts of mosquitos and certain flies, but Herrin is working to modify the algae so that it attacks the Aedes and Culex mosquitos, the latter carries other infectious diseases such as the West Nile virus.
Mosquito Testing Kit
Students are also getting involved in the Zika fight.
Undergrads from the Freshman Research Initiative are working under the leadership of molecular biosciences professor Andy Ellington, PhD, to create a cheap and simple hand-held device for the public to test mosquitos in their own backyards for Zika. The do-it-yourself device requires little technical knowledge and would produce results in 45 minutes by testing dead mosquitos.
Tracking the Virus
Sahotra Sarkar, PhD, UT Austin integrative biology professor, is projecting the global spread of Zika in 100 cities based on the prevalence of two Aedes mosquitos species. The first species, Aedes aegypti, is known to be effective at spreading the virus to humans. The second species, Aedes albopictus, is also a carrier of Zika and found in many more cities, but researchers are trying to determine whether it can spread the virus.
Meanwhile, biologists Christopher Vitek, PhD, and John Thomas, PhD are launching several projects with state and South Texas officials to pinpoint the location and density of Aedes mosquitos by locating their eggs.
Near the Mexican border, Doug Watts, PhD, is tracking the Aedes aegypti to see if it is carrying the virus around El Paso and studying the insect’s biology and ecology.
“If mosquito control is ever going to work, the number one priority is education,” said Watts, who has been chasing down the deadly insect since 1977. “It’ll be a never-ending profession to stay ahead of them.”
(Credit: On home page, photo of baby with microcephaly is courtesy of Associated Press)