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Old Enemy, New Threat

Robert Baker, microbiologist working on the Zika virus at IIT Research Institute

In 1947 defibrillation was first performed on a human, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to scientists who discovered how glycogen breaks down in the human body, and the United States Army successfully launched and returned the first living animal—fruit flies—to and from outer space.

A lot has changed since then—including the Zika virus.

“Scientists have started to sequence older samples of Zika from 1947, when Zika was first discovered in Africa, but the current virus is likely different,” says Robert Baker, manager of the Microbiology and Molecular Biology Division at IIT Research Institute, the university’s contract research organization.

IITRI leveraged its experience in modeling similar viruses including West Nile and dengue fever to become the first laboratory in the United States to receive human samples of the current Zika strain. In May IITRI completed its pre-clinical model of the virus and as of press date has begun testing the efficacy of existing drugs and vaccines in reducing Zika’s symptoms and rates of infection, respectively.

“We have gotten to the finish line before the others,” says Baker, who is leading the study.

According to Baker, within a few weeks of testing IITRI could feasibly send its research findings to the Food and Drug Administration, which could issue an emergency use authorization granting an already-licensed drug to be prescribed for the additional purpose of alleviating Zika.

“Our model shows lethal effects with fewer than 10 virus particles. We could see deaths with as few as two to three Zika virus particles,” says Baker, adding that in humans it typically takes more than 10,000 flu virus particles to make someone sick. “This indicates our model is very sensitive at showing how pharmaceuticals can have an effect on Zika.”

IITRI’s findings may extend well beyond identifying possible Zika medication and assist with the analysis of why, 64 years since the first cases of Zika in humans were documented, the virus is affecting the Brazilian population more severely than individuals in other parts of the world. Although the world’s first large human outbreak occurred in Micronesia in 2007, and the second in several Pacific islands seven years later, it wasn’t until February of this year that the World Health Organization declared Zika a public health emergency of international concern due to its association with microcephaly and other neurological disorders in Brazil.

“Brazil is an area with previous dengue infection,” notes Baker. “Our work may help to show for the first time that infection and recovery from one virus could lead to worse affects from a later infection by a separate virus.”