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Scientists found a new method to speed up the development of Zika vaccines

Posted March 20, 2019

Development of vaccines is a slow process. New mutations arise all the time and scientists have to rush to push vaccines on the market. The best way to improve this situation is to improve the process. Now researchers The University of Queensland found a way to speed up development of new vaccines and it is thanks to Zika virus research.

Zika virus thrives in mosquitos but struggles to replicate in humans and other mammals. Image credit: Jean-Raphaël Guillaumin via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Zika virus gained a lot of attention due to its outbreak in South America. It made people to pay attention to the emergence of new viruses and how difficult they are to treat because of lack of vaccines. Zika is being spread by mosquitoes and can cause birth defects if a pregnant woman is infected. Now scientists used deep mutational scanning to uncover Zika mutations that help foster virus replication in mosquito hosts, but does not allow it to replicate in mammals. The two different ways Zika virus grows in mammals and mosquitos is what caught scientists’ attention.

Scientists found two mutations that resulted in a virus that grew well in mosquito cells, but poorly in mammalian cells. Researchers identified several amino acids that are critical for Zika virus to survive in mammals, including humans. While the result is important, it is even more important that the deep mutational scanning worked so well – it allowed replicating a process which takes tens or hundreds of years in nature. In other words, scientists were able to see evolution happen really fast, seeing how a particular virus manages to thrive in mosquitos but doesn’t do so well in humans. This could put Zika research into overdrive, speeding up the creation of effective vaccines. Scientists say that now they can investigate how Zika virus can reach the placenta and cross into the foetus.

Researchers are also hoping to improve their understanding of how Zika is transmitted in nature. Associate Professor Alexander Khromykh, lead researcher in the study, said: “This technique can also be applied to investigate the development of the disease and the transmission of a range of similar viruses, transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks and other invertebrates. It took us a number of years, not to mention a significant collaborative effort, to get to this stage and we’re incredibly excited to see what’s next”. However, it will still take years for effective vaccines to be developed.

Improving processes of drug development is very important. New viruses are going to continue to emerge due to various mutations and we cannot prevent that. However, if we improve the process we can deliver vaccines quicker, making it more difficult for diseases to spread.


Source: University of Queensland

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