Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Awards Grant to Miller School for Zika Virus Study

A University of Miami Miller School of Medicine researcher has received a large grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the impact of the Zika virus in laboratory animals. David I. Watkins, Ph.D., professor and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Pathology, will use the $821,000 grant to develop a model for rhesus macaques that can guide the development of diagnostic tools, vaccines and therapies in humans.

“Our Miller School researchers are playing a critical role in addressing the global challenge of the Zika virus,” said Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Dean of the Miller School. “This highly competitive grant from the Gates Foundation will help support the important scientific and clinical work being done here to find a solution for this growing public health threat.”

The Zika virus causes microcephaly, a severe birth defect in which a baby is born with an abnormally small brain and head, when it infects pregnant women. The virus is primarily transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, although cases of infection through sexual intercourse have also been reported.

Watkins said the Gates Foundation-funded study, “Zika Virus: Pathogenesis in Pregnant Macaques,” will examine the virus’ ability to cross the placenta in pregnant female monkeys and any resulting birth defects. “This virus may be responsible for a wide range of fetal problems,” he said. “Microcephaly may only be the tip of the iceberg.”

“This grant is a recognition of our leadership in researching the Zika virus,” said Richard J. Cote, M.D., Professor and Joseph R. Coulter Chair of the Department of Pathology, Chief of Pathology at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and Director of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute (BioNIUM). “As soon as the potential magnitude of the problem became apparent, Dr. Watson led a team of researchers from the Miller School of Medicine to Brazil, where the virus has had its greatest impact to date. The funding from the Gates Foundation provides critical support for their continuing work.”

For this study, Watkins will be collaborating with Esper G. Kallas, M.D., Ph.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Kallas, who delivered a keynote address at the Miller School’s recent Zika forum, has extracted plasmablasts — immature plasma cells in the blood that produce antibodies — from four Zika-infected patients. “Our goal is to produce a monoclonal antibody against this virus,” Watkins said.

“Dean Goldschmidt was very helpful in establishing our connection with the Gates Foundation,” Watkins said. “Without his involvement, we would not have received this important research grant.”

Other researchers involved in the new laboratory study include Patricia Brasil, M.D., University of Rio de Janeiro; Mirna Bonaldo, Ph.D., Cruz Institute; and neuropathologist Andrew Lackner, D.V.M., Ph.D., director of the Tulane University Primate Center.

Founded in 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people — especially those with the fewest resources — have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, the foundation is led by CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann and Co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

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