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February 10, 2016

FGCU researchers join fight to block Zika

Research at Florida Gulf Coast University may help lead the fight against the Zika virus that has spawned international concern and public health emergencies in parts of Florida and the Americas.

Virologists Sharon Isern and Scott Michael are testing an antiviral treatment they developed and patented for dengue infection to determine if it also could block Zika. Both viruses are transmitted by mosquitoes.

Dr. Sharon Isern
Dr. Sharon Isern

“The viruses are related to each other — they’re like cousins,” Isern said. “A lot of what applies to dengue could be applied to Zika. We’re a little bit ahead of the curve to see what we can do because we’re not starting from scratch. We are trying our arsenal of dengue tools to learn anything we can about Zika.”

Isern and Michael, both biology professors at FGCU, have been researching the dengue virus for more than a decade and patented a potential treatment. Grants totaling more than $2 million from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, National Science Foundation and other sources have helped fund research; an additional $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant has supported their efforts to develop a dengue vaccine that is now being tested on mice.

The couple began growing Zika in a biosafety lab after the virus began spreading in the Americas several months ago. They are investigating possible Zika virus inhibitors and studying the differences and similarities between dengue and Zika. They have also been asked to test Florida mosquitoes from Miami-Dade County Mosquito Control to determine if the Zika virus is being transmitted locally.

In the lab, which has an airlocked anteroom to prevent contamination, monkey cells are infected with the virus, which then does the rest of the work.

“They are little biological machines that are built to infect and replicate in host cells, so all we have to do is expose the cells to the virus,” Michael said.

At FGCU, students often assist faculty in research projects, gaining valuable hands-on experience and a deeper understanding of the subjects they study. Carolyn Barcellona, who graduated in December 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and a minor in chemistry, is one a select group of students who have assisted Michael and Isern with their research.

Dr. Scott Michael
Dr. Scott Michael

“Working with the Zika virus has been almost surreal,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it in our lab meetings for quite some time, but seeing all the pictures on the news of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil has made it much more visceral. Just yesterday I was in the lab holding a tube of Zika in my double-gloved hand, and I realized that no matter how this experiment turns out, the results will provide new insights to the scientific community that could ultimately be used to alleviate suffering in the world.”

Isern and Michael’s progress with dengue treatment has put FGCU at the forefront of efforts to develop a vaccine against the re-emergent virus, which has reached epidemic levels in Southeast Asia and many Latin American and Caribbean countries.

“Their expertise in dengue virus biology will enable their lab to quickly become an important component of the scientific community’s response to the closely-related Zika virus,” said Robert Gregerson, Dean of FGCU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The students who work with Doctors Isern and Michael are contributing to cutting-edge applied-research projects. We are especially proud of this work because it will have a direct positive impact on human health in Florida and beyond.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 390 million people are infected with the dengue virus each year through mosquito bites. Dengue cases are reported every year in Florida, but they typically involve individuals traveling through tourist hubs from zones where the virus is widespread. However, locally transmitted outbreaks occurred in Key West in 2009 and 2010 and in Martin County in 2013. Dengue’s flu-like symptoms are extremely variable, which makes diagnosis difficult, and a mild case can appear similar to other viral infections. There is no known cure.

Transmission of the Zika virus by mosquitoes within the continental United States has not been reported, but some Americans have returned from affected countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands with infections. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 82 travel-related cases in the continental United States as of Feb. 17, with Florida leading the country; 35 cases have been reported to the state Department of Health, with three involving pregnant women.

Eleven Florida counties have reported cases of Zika infection as of Feb. 25, including Lee County, which has three. The others are: Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola, Santa Rosa, Seminole and St. Johns. The state has set up a Zika hotline (855-622-6735) offering daily updates.