UGA virus researchers start work on Zika vaccine

The University of Georgia and four of its scientists signed an agreement with a Smyrna biotechnology company to work on developing a vaccine for the Zika virus now emerging as a global health threat.

Virologist Ted Ross, a recent addition to the UGA faculty as a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar, will work on vaccine development under an agreement with GeoVax, founded 15 years ago to develop work on a vaccine for HIV begun by an Emory University scientist. The company is also working on vaccines for other viral diseases such as Ebola and Lassa.

UGA announced the agreement Wednesday, just two days after the World Health Organization declared Zika a global health emergency.

UGA virus researchers Ralph Tripp, Biao He and Mark Tompkins will also jump into the effort to find an effective Zika vaccine, according to an announcement from the office of the UGA Vice President for Research.

There is no vaccine for the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is suspected of causing microcephaly — abnormally small heads — in human babies and possibly Guillain-Barre syndrome.

The virus has been confirmed in more than two dozen countries in South America and Central America but is expected to spread to nearly all countries in the Western hemisphere, including the United States.

Scientists across the globe are now joining the race to develop a vaccine for Zika; just before UGA’s announcement, scientists in India announced they developed two vaccines against the virus, which is related to several other disease-causing viruses carried by mosquitoes, including yellow fever and dengue fever.

Ross uses a promising approach to vaccines using “virus-like particles,” which are similar to an actual virus but do not contain genetic material so they cannot infect or reproduce.

The particles work as vaccines by priming the body’s immune system before it’s hit with the real virus.

“When a person vaccinated with a VLP virus is infected by the real virus, the immune system is ready to fight back,” Ross said in a press release.

The GeoVax approach to vaccines is different from most in that it does not put the virus-like particles, or VLPs, directly into the vaccine. Instead, it uses recombinant DNA or viruses that will produce VLPs once they’re inside a person’s body. The idea is to produce VLPs that more closely resemble the actual viruses than the disease would produce inside the body, according to a statement from GeoVax president and CEO Robert McNally.


Lee Shearer, Online Athens

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