Research institutions around the world are scrambling to react to the latest outbreak of Zika virus. Scientists at Battelle may soon join the fight with support for development of diagnostic assays, animal models and vaccines.
While Zika has been known for decades, it was not considered a significant health threat until it was implicated as a possible cause of microcephaly, a serious birth defect. Now, it has been declared a public health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO), and the research community is rushing to find answers to critical questions such as: how is this strain of Zika different from previous strains? What is the connection to microcephaly, and why are we suddenly seeing it now? How do we accurately identify people—especially pregnant women—who have been exposed? And what is the best way to control the spread of the disease?
The Battelle Life Sciences Research team wants to answer some of these basic questions and support development of new diagnostics, vaccines and therapies. Researchers at Battelle are planning to compare the virulence of the traditional strain of ZIKV to the more contemporary strains (French Polynesian and Brazilian) to see if the South American strain is more virulent compared to historical isolates. Understanding how the virus has changed over time could help us understand whether, how and why the newer strains may cause developmental problems that were not seen in the past with the disease.
Battelle also hopes to work on new in vitro assays to support vaccine and therapy development as well as diagnostic platforms to help with control and prevention efforts. Developing and validating diagnostic assays is a critical first step in finding an effective vaccine for Zika. Assays are required to assess immune response in previously infected patients and vaccinated subjects both in humans and in animal models. In addition, rapid field diagnostic platforms are urgently needed to help local healthcare organizations monitor the spread of disease and identify pregnant mothers who may be at risk.
Battelle Life Sciences Research has a long history of work with assay development and vaccine trail support for virulent diseases, including analysis of clinical samples collected from patients vaccinated against B. anthracis and Ebola virus. Battelle recently conducted efficacy studies for vaccines and therapies for West Nile virus, another mosquito-borne virus in the same family as Zika. Battelle also has experience developing and validating novel diagnostic devices for use by field personnel.
Additional research is needed to better understand the developmental and reproductive aspects of Zika infection. The link to microcephaly has not yet been definitively proven, and no mechanism has been identified by which the disease may cause birth defects. Rapid, reliable assays will be an important tool for studying the relationship between Zika infection and developmental and reproductive effects observed in human populations.
Currently, the lack of validated animal models presents a significant barrier to the research community. These models are needed for both basic research and for the development and validation of vaccines and therapies. While studies of infected human populations may be able to show evidence of a connection to microcephaly, researchers will need models to better analyze disease mechanisms and reproductive effects. There are many unanswered questions about how Zika affects the developing fetus: Is the fetus exposed to the virus when the mother is exposed? Is Zika able to cross the placenta? Are there critical time periods in development when exposure is most dangerous? What is the mechanism by which the virus impacts fetal development? Models are also needed to conduct required pre-clinical safety and efficacy studies. Battelle has extensive experience in developing novel models for infectious diseases, as well as developmental and reproductive toxicology (DART) capabilities.
Battelle’s response to Zika is still evolving as research needs and priorities are identified. Over the next several months, researchers at Battelle will be engaged in Zika research along multiple fronts.