LONDON – A research team from The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has for the first time cloned the Zika virus, according to a study published Monday. This means that scientists are now able to replicate the Zika strain in test tubes and on Petri dishes to study and adapt the virus to accelerate the development of a vaccine. The cloned virus could also help test how efficient a future vaccine can be.
The Zika virus has been widely spread in Latin America in recent months. Several research shows the mosquito-borne virus is linked to increased rates of microcephaly, which consists of more babies being born with underdeveloped brains and small heads.
Lead study author Pei-Yong Shi said trials on animals could begin soon if scientists manage to adapt the Zika strain to make a safe vaccine. He suggested that clinical trials could start next year, as reported by CNN. Shi added that researchers can now make batches of the virus in large quantities.
Other groups working on Zika vaccines can benefit from this new development
The research team infected mosquitos and mice with the replicated virus and found that the latter ended up developing neurological diseases. This is the first time a group of scientists successfully clone the Zika strain, but other teams are also working to develop Zika vaccines by studying infected mouse models in terms of behavior and the resulted neurological deficits.
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Arturo Reyes-Sandoval, an associate professor at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, told CNN that his team could benefit from the new replicated strain by using it to test the efficacy of the vaccine they are currently working on.
“The Zika virus took all of us by surprise, and one of the difficulties in developing preventative measures has been the lack of tools available to test the vaccine. So a development like this will help for sure,” Reyes-Sandoval said, CNN reported.
The Jenner Institute hopes to start clinical trials next year as it has already begun to conduct trials with mice. For its part, the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has developed a trial vaccine for similar strains that can serve as a starting point for a Zika vaccine.
Reducing risks for the Zika virus
As Brazil has become the epicenter of the latest Zika epidemic in the Americas, a pharmaceutical company and condom maker announced that they would protect the Australian Olympic team with antiviral lubricants and “Zika-proof” condoms so the athletes have better chances of returning home safe after the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. The virus can be sexually transmitted before patients know they have contracted it and even after symptoms have disappeared.