The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 65 countries and territories have reported cases of Zika virus.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine are conducting studies that utilize blood donations from individuals who have been diagnosed with or potentially exposed to mosquito-borne viruses as part of ongoing dengue and Zika research and vaccine development.
‘Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to Zika infection because of potential birth defects. The main birth defect associated with Zika is microcephaly.’
Aravinda de Silva, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, and Matt Collins, MD, PhD, an infectious diseases fellow, are among more than 10 groups studying and researching Zika at UNC.
De Silva's lab received supplemental funding on two existing grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study Zika, and is now seeking blood donations from people who have been diagnosed with or potentially exposed to arboviruses such as dengue, chikungunya, and Zika. Specifically, de Silva is seeking participation from people who have traveled to tropical areas such as Southeast Asia, India, Central and South America, and Africa.
"Research studies of participants' immune cells and antibodies may help us develop vaccines and better clinical tests to diagnose these viral infections," de Silva said.
While many people don't realize they are infected - 85 percent of people believed to have Zika are asymptomatic - common symptoms of these viruses include fever, rash, joint paint, muscle aches, and headaches. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to Zika infection because of potential birth defects. The main birth defect associated with Zika is microcephaly, a rare neurological condition in which an infant is born with a much smaller head - an effect of abnormal brain development.
UNC researchers are currently working with state and federal health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and NIH. The NIH has supplemented current grants so researchers can broaden the scope of their work to expedite the research and response to Zika, de Silva said. The UNC School of Medicine has a decades-long history of studying arboviruses.
"There''s real expertise here," de Silva said. "My group and others, we have been studying dengue viruses for many years. Dengue is very closely related to Zika, but distinct. And we have a program that includes epidemiology, human immunology, and pathogenesis, and this work includes a lot of international work in South Asia, as well as in the Americas."
A vaccine for Zika could be developed based on previous work to successfully develop Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis, and dengue vaccines, de Silva said. Currently, there are three phase-three clinical trials for a dengue vaccine and UNC is collaborating with vaccine developers to understand data from these trials. According to the WHO, an estimated 390 million people are infected with dengue worldwide each year.
"There's a tremendous amount of work going on right now on dengue vaccines," de Silva said. "Our group at UNC has been working very closely with all the leading vaccine developers." Participation requires a one-time blood donation. The study is open to all healthy adults, including pregnant women.