UConn professor works on developing Zika virus vaccine

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Paulo Verardi (right) with PhD student Brittany Jasperse (left).
Paulo Verardi (right), associate professor of virology and vaccionology, and Brittany Jasperse (left), Ph.D. student, recently had successful results in animal trials towards producing a Zika virus vaccine. Photo courtesy of UConn Today

A University of Connecticut associate professor recently had successful results in animal trials and is moving onto the next steps to produce a Zika virus vaccine.  

Paulo Verardi, associate professor of virology and vaccinology, with help from then Ph.D. student Brittany Jasperse, were among the first researchers to file for a grant with the National Institutes of Health and receive a federal grant to work on a Zika vaccine.  

In the pre-clinical animal trials, the mice that were given a single dose Zika virus vaccine showed no sign of the disease in their bodies or blood. For the ones in the placebo group who did not receive the vaccination, they did allow replication of the virus.  

“The animals that were vaccinated did not show evidence of virus replication,” Verardi said. “We could not detect the virus in them.”  

The need for a Zika virus vaccine is partly due to its link with microcephaly, a serious birth defect that can lead to babies having underdeveloped brains. When Verardi was visiting family in Brazil in 2015, he noted the rising cases of Zika and microcephaly and decided to keep tabs on the cases upon his return  to the United States.  

After he heard about a Brazilian physician discovering a link between Zika and microcephaly, Verardi said he called Jasperse to work on starting a vaccine.  

“You buy health insurance. You pay for it. You pay ahead of time. When something bad happens to you, the health insurance has a system ready to provide you health care. What we need is the same for the entire planet where we provide insurance against emerging infectious diseases and neglected tropical diseases.”

Paulo Verardi, Associate Professor of Virology and Vaccionolgy

“If the mother gets infected [with Zika], the virus goes across the placenta, reaches the fetus, goes to the brain and can cause microcephaly,” Verardi said.  

Additionally, Zika virus is part of a group of viruses known as flaviviruses. Flavivirus includes dengue virus, yellow fever virus and West Nile virus. Verardi said having a successful Zika vaccine could be useful for producing vaccines for other related flaviviruses.  

According to a UConn Today article, Verardi and Jasperse developed and tested multiple “vaccine candidates” to create virus-like particles. These virus-like particles resemble the native particles to the immune system and trigger an immune system response. In order to produce the Zika virus-like particles, they worked with the viral vector vaccinia virus.  

The next steps for the Zika virus vaccine is to increase the production of the virus-like particles and to conduct human clinical trials to test the vaccine. Verardi has filed provisional patents with UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services to help generate the vaccine. One of the key challenges to conducting the human trails will be finding participants in areas where the disease is highly prevalent.   

A key demographic for this vaccine would be women of childbearing age, due to its connection with microcephaly, Verardi said.  

“If you were pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, you would want such a vaccine,” he said.   

Although Zika spreads primarily through mosquito bites, there have been documented cases of virus transmission through semen. Therefore, Verardi added that men could also be another target audience for this vaccine.  

macro photo of a brown mosquito
The Zika virus is spread primarily by mosquitoes. Research at UConn has shown promising results in animal trials towards a Zika virus vaccine. Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

“Even in certain cases, a man would benefit from [a vaccine], not because it would benefit themselves, but they wouldn’t transmit to women and, therefore, the virus would not be transmitted to the babies,” Verardi said.   

Verardi said it is key to start developing vaccines for emerging viruses when the viruses are first detected, similar to his approach with the Zika virus. By starting early, it will help the scientific community better prepare for outbreaks.  

“You buy health insurance. You pay for it. You pay ahead of time. When something bad happens to you, the health insurance has a system ready to provide you health care,” Verardi said. “What we need is the same for the entire planet where we provide insurance against emerging infectious diseases and neglected tropical diseases.”  

Verardi said vaccine development and production has been put into the spotlight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that in the past 12 years, there have been many epidemics and pandemics, including the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, the 2014 Ebola epidemic and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He stressed that vaccine development production will only stay relevant.  

“We are all in this together and we have to get out of this together,” Verardi said.   

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