Zika virus vaccine to be developed in Manchester

A University of Manchester team is to develop a new vaccine against the Zika virus as part of a new initiative to counter the disease which has spread rapidly across the Americas in the last few months.

The team will create and test a vaccine based on a safe derivative of a pre-existing smallpox vaccine – the only disease to have been successfully globally eradicated.

Dr Tom Blanchard, Honorary Senior Lecturer at The University of Manchester and Fellow of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Consultant in Infectious Diseases at North Manchester General Hospital and the Royal Liverpool Hospital will lead the project. Professor Pam Vallely and Dr Eddie McKenzieare University of Manchester experts involved in the project and the work will be done in collaboration with Professors Miles Carrol and Roger Hewson from Public Health England.

Dr Blanchard said:

“As we have seen in the case of Ebola there is now a real need to react quickly to fast spreading tropical diseases. Zika can cause serious illness, but it often has no visible symptoms, so a vaccine for those at risk is one of the most effective ways we have of combatting it.”

Zika virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 and the disease is mainly spread by mosquitoes, though there have been reports of human to human transmission. It is particularly serious for pregnant women, as it’s been linked to birth defects – in particular, microcephaly, a condition where a baby’s brain doesn’t grow properly and it is born with an abnormally small head and serious development problems.

A recent and particularly severe outbreak which began in South America and has since spread north to United States Territories prompted the Medical Research Council, The Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund to launch a £4m rapid response funding initiative at the beginning of February.

The results of this call for proposals have been announced today and Dr Blanchard and his team were awarded £177,713 to build and test a vaccine as part of this.

It is expected that the results will be delivered within 18 months and although the first target will be the Zika virus, the nature of the vaccine candidate may enable it to combat many infectious diseases simultaneously.

Dr Blanchard added:

“We know that there’s an urgent need for this vaccine but we’ll be working carefully to deliver a product which is safe and effective and which can be quickly deployed to those who need it.

If we can also use this vaccine on multiple targets then this will represent an exciting step forward in dealing with these kinds of outbreaks.”

 

Higher death toll not due to evolving Ebola virus

Faculty scientists have completed computer analysis of the deadly Ebola virus which has shown that it has not evolved to become any more deadly since its first outbreak almost 40 years ago.

Ebola Virus

The surprising results show that whilst the virus has undergone a high number of genetic changes, the virus has not become any more virulent. The findings, published in the journal Virology, help prove that the higher death toll in the current outbreak is not because of a change in the way the virus infects humans.

This may prove to be extremely useful. Professor David Robertson says:

“The fact that Ebola isn’t changing in a way that affects the virulence of the disease means that vaccines and treatments developed during this current outbreak have a very high chance of being effective against future outbreaks. It also means that methods to successfully tackle the virus should work again, so hopefully in the future an outbreak can be stopped from spreading at a much earlier stage.”

The team used a computational approach, developed by PhD student Abayomi Olabode, that was previously used to analyse changes in the HIV-1 virus. The major advantage of using a computer-based approach is that research can be carried out in a very quick and safe way – something that is vital when studying viral epidemics. Importantly, this type of modelling can be done in real time, meaning that scientists can better react to deadly diseases as they happen.

Viral outbreaks, such as Ebola, need to be continually monitored for any change, including those that make the virus less potent. If symptoms are less severe, there is a greater chance that the virus will go unidentified. Infected individuals can spread the virus more widely throughout a population, making it harder to trace those who have been exposed to it and ultimately causing more deaths. Professor Robertson comments:

“This level of surveillance will only become more essential in the fight against contagious illness as we live in an increasingly globally connected society.”

On the results of the study, Professor Tony Redmond, from the University’s Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute says:

“These are very important findings and emphasise that the spread of the virus in this outbreak owed as much to factors within the human community than within the virus itself.”

It is now thought that computer approaches like this one used to study Ebola will become the standard way to look at viral epidemics in the future.

Could bacteria help save amphibians?

Faculty members have teamed up with the Institute of Zoology to investigate the effectiveness of probiotic bacteria in treating Chytrid (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) – a fungus that is devastating global frog populations.

Chytrid is a fungus that is thought to be the reason why over 200 different species of frog have gone extinct. This has resulted in 31% of all amphibian species becoming ‘threatened’ according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

A Belize frog, courtesy of Dr R Antwis.

The team, led by former PhD student Dr Rachael Antwis, used bacteria taken from frogs in Belize to investigate the potential benefits of using probiotic bacteria in the treatment of Chytrid. Whilst previous studies have shown that certain bacteria that live on an amphibian’s skin have slowed down the progression of Chytrid, probiotics have not been used in long term field studies.

In assessing the efficacy of probiotics, the team used bacteria on a number of different strains of the disease. Chytrid mutates extremely quickly, so the bacteria must be able to treat different forms of the virus to be effective in the wild. Early results from this investigation suggest that a combination of different bacteria will increase the probability of halting the progression of Chytrid.

The paper resulting from this study, published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, will act as an important basis for future research into the use of bacteria to help fight Chytrid.

Dr Antwis concludes:

“A lot more work is definitely needed before we can identify an effective cure for this devastating disease. But as a scientist, I believe we not only have a moral obligation to keep searching, but an ecological one too. Amphibians inhabit the middle of food chain, making up a vital part of our ecosystem. If they go, then that could spell disaster for many more species.”