AL researchers on front lines in search for Zika cure - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL

AL researchers on front lines in search for Zika cure

(Source: WSFA 12 News) (Source: WSFA 12 News)
(Source: WSFA 12 News) (Source: WSFA 12 News)
Dr. Jonathan Rayner and Dr. Timothy Sellati at Southern Research (Source: WSFA 12 News) Dr. Jonathan Rayner and Dr. Timothy Sellati at Southern Research (Source: WSFA 12 News)

Mysterious new cases of the Zika virus in Florida have raised the possibility that mosquitoes here in the United States have started to spread the disease.

There is currently no vaccine or treatment for Zika, but here in Alabama, researchers are working to change that.

Dr. Timothy Sellati, a senior research fellow and the chair of Southern Research's Infectious Diseases Department in the drug discovery division, and his coworkers are making strides in the international effort to find a cure for the virus.

They are part of the Infectious Disease Research team at Southern Research, a not-for-profit research institute headquartered in Birmingham with nearly 500 scientists and engineers working across four divisions: Drug Discovery, Drug Development, Engineering, and Energy & Environment.

Southern Research’s promising work on understanding the course of the virus' infection led them to receive a contract from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to increase their research on the Zika virus.

The initial contract is for nearly $1 million, and has the potential of adding up to more than $3.9 million over the next two years.

They are currently working with several different strains of the Zika virus in search of a vaccine. They've also developed a unique antiviral test that can be used by researchers across the globe to determine the effectiveness of potential Zika drugs.

The researchers are utilizing animal models of Zika to study exactly how the virus enters the body and causes severe neurological complications during pregnancy, such as the serious birth defect microcephaly.

“Basic research activities are focused more on understanding how the virus causes the neurological complications associated with viral infection. We're trying to understand the mechanism whereby the virus damages the developing brain of the fetus,” explained Dr. Sellati.

Zika is mainly spread by mosquitoes, as well as through sex. So far, the 1,400 infections reported in the U.S. have been linked to travel to countries with Zika outbreaks in Latin America or the Caribbean.

This week, Florida health officials revealed they are investigating several cases of Zika infection that do not appear to be related to travel.

Blood donations have been halted in some counties. 

It sheds light on the importance of developing treatments for the disease to curb the spread of the virus.

Dr. Jonathan Rayner is the director of Infectious Disease Research in the drug development division at Southern Research. He has been working in mosquito borne infectious diseases his entire career.

He says when the Zika outbreak occurred this past year, Southern Research started working to learn more about the virus and develop animal model capabilities. They used internal research and development funds to study Zika infection on primates.

The preliminary work and data led to the contract with NIAD to continue their promising momentum and develop a non-human primate model for Zika virus infection.

“The purpose of this model is ultimately to not only understand the time course of infection, but to be able to use and evaluate that model for testing new candidate drugs and vaccines that the government and other commercial entities might be interested in developing and pursuing,” Dr. Rayner said.

Southern Research is in a unique position to help combat Zika because they have drug discovery and drug development under the same roof.

There are labs across the world that are focused on testing antivirals and developing vaccines. There are also laboratories that are doing research to learn how the virus causes disease in the first place.

But Southern Research has both research activities happening simultaneously under the same roof.

“That cross fertilization of research ideas, utilization of techniques and animal models across the drug discovery and drug development division here at Southern Research is what allows us to make really innovative advances in combating infectious diseases," Dr. Sellati said.

“That's our goal, to be proactive. That's why we invested those funds internally to establish these models so we could have a sense of what was going on so that we could use that to spearhead the government's attempts to actually develop these models that would be available for actual vaccines that could either prevent or treat viral infection," Dr. Rayner added.

Rayner believes risk of local transmission in Alabama is relatively low. He doesn't think there's a widespread threat with Zika in the U.S., but indicated that there could be some local cases.

“Every day, we're getting new reports of potential new routes of transmission and new pathologies that are associated with the virus. We have so much to learn. It is a credible threat. Now that it's been introduced into the Americas, it's not likely to go away,” Rayner explained. “As it continues to spread and as it continues to cause increasing pathologies, we need to understand the virus. We need to know how to protect our loved ones.”

The research will also allow Southern Research to better understand the impact of Zika infection on the fetus during pregnancy.

“There's a lot that we don't know about the effect of this virus on the unborn fetus,” Dr. Rayner said. “With our Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology capabilities, we can bring that experience and expertise to bear in further developing models that would look at that special population and help to address the concerns of women within child bearing age asking if they take it, will it protect their child. That's the next line of investigation.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that it will award $977,000 to Alabama to fight the Zika virus.

The award is Alabama’s share of about $60 million CDC is awarding to states, cities, and territories to support efforts to protect Americans from Zika virus disease and adverse health outcomes that can result from Zika infection, including microcephaly.

Copyright 2016 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

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