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San Antonio Scientists Battling Zika In The Lab

A San Antonio lab is conducting important research into the Zika virus. The information scientists gather here could help in development of a vaccine for the disease, which threatens to rear its head in South Texas in the next couple of years.

The World Health Organization calls Zika a global public health emergency. While mosquitoes may not be spreading the virus in Texas yet, the routine bite of the flying pest is spreading fear.

UTHSC tackles Zika
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Scientists at the U.T. Health Science Center in San Antonio are working on the Zika virus

With the aid of tools like the centrifuge and suction pipettes, the researchers in a lab at the U.T. Health Science Center’s Microbiology and Immunology department are detectives, searching for clues about how this new enemy attacks. Yan Xiang, Ph.D., says his passion is figuring out how and why some viruses, like Zika, become more dangerous and deadly over time.

"We are interested in why Zika virus infects some cells but not other cells," Xiang said.

An Emerging Health Threat

Zika was first identified in Africa in 1947. Only last year did it start wreaking havoc in South America with a spike in babies with birth defects born to women infected with the virus during pregnancy.

There’s actually Zika in Xiang’s lab, samples kept safely tucked away. Scientists clone the genome of the virus into a piece of DNA and propagate it. Then, they make changes in the DNA sequence to see what happens. The idea is to create a version of Zika that does not infect the placenta or brain cells, but infects some other tissue in the body where it won’t create a problem. That version of Zika could be made into a vaccine like the shot for measles or the nasal mist for the flu.

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Scientists at the U.T. Health Science Center are working with the African strain of the Zika virus

"People have received this type of vaccination for generations," Xiang explained. "The human can develop an immune response to the virus without actually having any disease from the virus."

This is a highly established method of immunization, exposing the body to the disease, educating the immune system to create antibodies, without causing any health issues. Later, Texas Biomedical Research Institute may help with animal testing.

Frustrated by lack of funding

Like many virologists, Xiang is frustrated by the lack of funding…with Congress taking summer break without passing a bill for more than a billion dollars requested by the President six months ago. "Our research effort has been relatively slow because we don’t really have the funding for Zika virus research," Xiang stated.

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Questions about the Zika virus answered in this lab could lead to the development of a live attenuated virus vaccine for the disease

The answers Xiang and teams all over the world find may help not only with Zika, but with other emerging diseases that don’t even have names yet. "We need to understand how viruses chance to become more deadly," he added. "Because this time we see the Zika virus. Next year, it could be another virus."

A recent national survey showed 53 percent of Americans polled said they would be likely to get a vaccine if one existed. That vaccine may not be available until 2018.

Several other approaches to developing vaccines to Zika are already underway as well, with one already being tested in people.

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Yan Xiang, Ph.D., is heading up Zika virus research at the U.T. Health Science Center in San Antonio