Miami CTSI Supports Collaborative Research Team to Study Zika Virus

As the Zika virus outbreak develops as a public health emergency, both internationally and for South Florida, David Watkins, Ph.D., professor and Vice Chair of Research in the Department of Pathology, and a team of top Miller School researchers are rapidly working to develop better diagnostic tests and to understand the virus’s link to neurological complications such as microcephaly.

With support from the Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) through its Emerging Diseases Funding Award, Watkins and his collaborators, including experts from Brazil and Emory University, will focus their research on two areas — diagnostics and pathogenesis.

“We have world-class experts at the Miller School of Medicine in epidemiology, immunology, public health — including mosquito management — and other fields such as ethics who have come together to address this potential threat to our community,” said Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D. “Members of our team are already in Brazil, conducting research in areas that have been hit hardest. We believe this interdisciplinary collaboration will be the fastest route to developing effective responses to the Zika virus threat, and we are already being recognized internationally for our leadership role in this effort.”

Clinics in Brazil currently have no way to distinguish Zika virus from other flaviviruses on the rise, such as dengue and Chikungunya, in patients who are symptomatic. The team will develop two tests that will be used to detect the virus in patients during the acute phase of Zika infection. One is a simple paper, antibody-based assay, and the second is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay, which amplifies the genetic information of the virus.

Because both tests are intended to be cost-effective and easy to use, they are ideally suited for clinics in remote locations and resource-poor settings, like the ones heavily affected by Zika in Brazil and throughout the Americas.

In addition to testing, the team will investigate if Zika could be causing thousands of cases of microcephaly, a birth defect in which babies are born with small heads and underdeveloped brains.

At the beginning of 2016, Brazil had reported 3,174 suspected cases of microcephaly, while in 2014, fewer than 150 cases of the birth defect were reported. This sudden rise in cases prompted the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency.

To understand a possible link, the researchers will develop animal models using macaque monkeys and mice to examine whether the Zika virus can cross the placenta and infect neural tissue.

“Determining if Zika virus is neurotopic is just one step in a long pathway to understanding how it plays a part in the development of neurological complications and microcephaly in particular,” Watkins said.

While health organizations monitor the spread of the virus and governments, such as the State of Florida, take measures to protect the community through increased mosquito control efforts, the goal for Watkins and his team is to develop vaccines and treatments for this emerging disease with potential devastating effects.

Collaborating with Watkins from the Miller School of Medicine are Glen N. Barber, Ph.D., professor and Chair of the Department of Cell Biology; Sylvia Daunert, PharmD, M.S., Ph.D., professor and Lucille P. Markey Chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Associate Director of the Dr. John T. Macdonald Biomedical Nanotechnology Institute; Sapna Deo, Ph.D., associate professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Ronald C. Desrosiers, Ph.D., professor of pathology; Mehrdad Nadji, M.D., professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Pathology; and Mario Stevenson, Ph.D., professor of medicine, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the HIV/AIDS Institute.

Additional collaborating researchers are Myrna Cristina Bonaldo, D.Sc., Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology of Flavivirus, Brazil; Esper G. Kallas, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Medicine at the Division of Clinical Immunology and Allergy at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil; Marcio de Oliveira, M.D., an Infectious Diseases Specialist in Salvador, Brazil; and Guido Silvestri, M.D., professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, Emory University School of Medicine.

The Miami CTSI’s Emerging Disease Funding Award was established in December 2015 to support innovative and translational research initiatives that address emerging diseases, especially those that pose immediate health risks to South Florida’s population.

This project is funded by the Miami CTSI, grant number UL1TR000460, from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

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