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Pitt’s Cura Zika Projects Focus On Disease Development, Detection And Vaccines

 A crane fly sits on a hand.
Matt Nemeth
90.5 WESA

The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health has announced the recipients of the first round of funding for its CuraZika initiative.

Six research projects that interrogate three different approaches were chosen to receive the $400,000 in funding. Two researchers are looking at ways to diagnose the virus, two are trying to understand how the virus causes disease, and two are pursuing vaccine technologies.

Postdoctoral associate and Brazil native Isabelle Viana is one of the researchers interested in developing a vaccine.  She is using a cutting edge technique called DNA vaccination, which is different than tradition viral immunizations. The technique introduces the DNA from a virus—not the virus itself—into the immune system to stimulate a protective response.

“The DNA vaccines are a relatively new technology, but the technology has been advancing a lot in the last years. The techniques we are using on our project are really, really advanced,” Viana said. “Everything that we have so far in our hands points towards a very successful strategy.”

Assistant professor and researcher Robbie Mailliard is looking at the body’s immune response to another virus endemic to Latin America: dengue. He said he is concerned there may be a “glitch” in the body’s response to Zika—essentially that it misidentifies the virus as dengue and thus mounts an ineffective immune response against it.

“If that response isn’t a really good cross-reactive response, if it’s a weak response, what you can end up doing is getting a partial immune response where you get a lot of inflammation, but no elimination of the affected cells,” Mailliard said. He believes that understanding whether or not this is occurring will be integral to vaccine development.

In the meantime, researchers also want to understand more about how the Zika virus actually causes disease.

Assistant professor Jennifer Adibi is looking at the role the placenta might play in transmitting the virus from mother to fetus. She said the placenta “does mount a quick and dramatic response” to Zika, but that 30 to 40 percent of pregnant women infected with Zika end up giving birth to babies with microcephaly or other birth defects.

This is a public health disaster that is unfolding, and to take no action is just unthinkable

“What’s happening with all those other infected women whose babies are not impacted?” Adibi said. “Maybe the placenta can give us some of those clues as to what are the protective factors, who’s at risk, who’s not at risk, and how can we identify that sooner in pregnancy to reduce the risk long term.”

Adibi and her team will be exposing placental tissue from first trimester terminations to the virus and then capturing the placenta's excretions. Subsequently, they will expose fetal brain tissue to those excretions in an attempt to recreate what happens in the womb of a Zika-infected pregnant woman.

Psychiatry and human genetics professor Vishwajit Nimgaonkar will be drilling down even further, to explore how the Zika virus affects fetal brain development.

“Our hypothesis is that Zika infects the early cells, the less differentiated cells, and it affects the process of differentiation,” he said. “We’re going to look at a cellular model, we’re going to look at the virus and see how it affects the differentiation process, as well as whether it kills the cells.”

Two Brazilian researchers, Roberto Lins and Eduardo Nasciemento, both from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, also received funding for their projects, which deal with diagnosing Zika and detecting exposure to the virus.

The grant funding announcement came less than two weeks after public health officials in Miami warned of an outbreak of the disease on a popular beach in the tourist destination city.

“There’s a very strong sense of urgency,” said Don Burke, the dean of the Graduate School of Public Health. “The Zika epidemic hit Brazil hard and now it’s moving through other parts of Latin America and into the United States … We don’t know for a fact how long it will be here, but my own guess is there’s a good chance that this may be with us for the next generation.”

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released Thursday found that 75 percent of Americans want Congress to prioritize funding to fight the epidemic. President Barack Obama in February asked for $1.9 million, but so far the legislature has not appropriated any resources for Zika prevention and research.

“My own view is that’s unconscionable,” Burke said. “This is a public health disaster that’s unfolding, and to take no action is just unthinkable.”

Burke said the first round of funding from the Cura Zika project is for one year. Half of the $400,000 is coming from Pitt’s School of Public Health; the other half is coming from an anonymous donor. Burke said he expects a second round of funding to bring the total to $1 million.