In 2015, when the outbreak of the Zika virus gained momentum in Brazil and was classified as an epidemic, biologist Paulo Verardi was in the country visiting his family. Then, back in the United States, where he teaches at the University of Connecticut, Verardi continued to monitor the situation and, seeing the severity of the disease, decided to develop an immunizer.
Using the genetic sequence of the virus and a new platform for vaccine development developed by his team, the scientist tested different candidates for immunizers that create pseudoviral particles (VLPs). Using these molecules is a good strategy because they are similar to viruses, but they are not infectious, which stimulates the immune system to develop a response similar to that built in a natural infection.
Among five vaccines, the scientists selected one to apply to mice. The candidate chosen was the one that, thanks to mutations in the genetic sequence, leads to a greater formation of Zika VLPs. The research, published in March in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that rodents who received only one dose developed a strong immune response and were completely protected from infection by the Zika virus.
In view of the initial success of the work, Verardi filed a provisional patent application for the new vaccine platform technology employed in the process, which is based on a viral vector. Known as the vaccinia virus, the vector has been modified to express a part of the genetic sequence of the Zika virus and produce the necessary VLPs.
In addition to the immunizing agent being shown to be effective in preclinical studies, the findings may be useful in combating other flaviviruses – a genus of which the Zika virus is a part and includes those that cause dengue, yellow fever and West Nile fever. Identifying which mutations increase the expression of Zika VLPs, for example, can contribute to better vaccine production.
Verardi also points out that having structures and platforms for the development of immunizers is important for the world to be able to deal with new disease outbreaks. “Emerging viruses are not going to stop emerging anytime soon, so we need to be prepared,” notes the researcher, in a note. “Part of the preparation is to continue the development of these platforms”, he concludes.
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