Lab Spotlight

NIAID’s Search for a Zika Vaccine

With mosquito season kicking into gear and the 2016 Olympics upping the stakes, the search for ways to combat the Zika virus is increasingly urgent. Among those leading the charge is the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

NIAID is working with its partners in government, academia, and the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to better understand Zika, the disease it causes, and strategies to combat it. The Institute has accelerated research on a variety of Zika-related topics, such as how it causes disease, techniques to rapidly diagnose a case and distinguish Zika from similar viruses, and vaccines and therapeutic treatments.

Although Zika itself is new to the Western Hemisphere, NIAID has studied its “relatives,” like dengue and West Nile, for years, and believes these studies’ insights into how they work will speed up the process of stopping the Zika threat. Since the start of the year, the Institute has been working to learn everything it can about Zika specifically, and has encouraged its partners to do the same, up to the point of offering funding opportunities.

NIAID is actively pursuing multiple vaccine candidates to prevent Zika virus infection as quickly as possible, while ensuring that they are safe for use. An investigational Zika vaccine could be ready to enter early-stage human trials—which determine whether a vaccine is safe and generates an immune response—as soon as this fall. A safe and effective, fully licensed Zika vaccine will likely not be available for several years.

Currently, some promising leads include a DNA-based vaccine that works much like an existing vaccine for West Nile virus, which has cleared a Phase 1 clinical trial; a live-attenuated vaccine (i.e., a weakened version of the virus) based on a dengue virus vaccine approach, currently in a Phase III trial in Brazil; a vaccine that uses a genetically engineered version of a cattle virus that has worked on Ebola in tests, currently being tested on tissue cultures and animal models; and a whole-particle inactivated vaccine that is modeled after a vaccine approach that the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research used to develop vaccines against Japanese encephalitis and dengue.

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