UTRGV researchers take lead on Zika research

EDINBURG — Protected by a white lab coat and plastic gloves, Dr. John Thomas, a researcher at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, checked the status of an orange liquid in a plastic container. In that container is the Puerto Rican strain of the Zika virus.

The Rio Grande Valley is considered a likely port of entry for this mosquito-borne virus, and UTRGV researchers are leading efforts to better understand and combat the threat.

Thomas and Dr. Christian Vitek, both researchers and associate professors at the university’s biology department, are working together to better understand the virus and how it could affect the Valley.

“The work and the research is going to be focused here in the Valley,” Vitek said. ¨The concern is this region, and this area is one of the top two or three potential sources of introduction of the disease nationally. … We are adjacent to countries where Zika is being found.”

Thomas, who has a background in viral pathogenesis and vaccine design, is tackling the issue from the virus side by growing the strand of the virus and testing it to see its effects in animals.

Vitek, on the other hand, is using his knowledge of ecology and medical entomology to study the insect part of the equation, specifically how the virus acts in different types of mosquitoes and where they are located around the Valley.

¨What we are trying to do is really unify our approaches and have a comprehensive examination of Zika virus biology, not only on the vertebrate host but on the mosquito vector as well,” Thomas said.

The two types of mosquitoes that carry the virus — the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus — are common in tropical climate and found in the Valley. These are the same mosquitoes that carry other viruse,s such as West Nile, dengue and chikungunya.

With help from UT-System funding, Thomas was able to begin his part of the research by acquiring the Puerto Rican strain from a fellow researcher in Florida and start the reproduction process of the virus.

He is now studying its growth and later this summer his goal is to begin testing the virus on pregnant laboratory mice and opossums to study potential risk of microcephaly, a condition causing underdevelopment of the brain, which has been linked to the most recent outburst of Zika in Brazil and other South and Central America countries.

“What we are basically doing is we are taking pregnant animals, we are infecting them with Zika, and we are collecting the young and studying their brains to see if they have tissue damage. What are the levels of virus that is inside of them?” Thomas said.

There are few viruses able to penetrate the placenta and affect a fetus and Thomas said if Zika is one of them, it could be that the virus is eating away brain cells as they are attempting to fully form the baby’s brain.

¨We know that Zika can infect human neuronal cells,” he said. ¨Unfortunately, of all the cell types in your body, the brain cells are the only ones that really don’t divide and grow.¨

Vitek is also starting to study the dynamics of the virus transmission, feeding mosquitoes blood infected with the Asian and African strain of the virus, while students test other viruses in the lab that can later act as a backbone for a vaccine.

¨We are taking genes from the Zika virus, putting into these other expression vectors and using them to infect animals to see if we can develop an antibody response against the different Zika proteins that the virus makes,” Thomas said.

There are many basic questions the two researchers want to answer that could significantly help curve the way Valley officials react to or prevent a possible hot-spot scenario.

To further extend their efforts, Thomas and Vitek recently applied for a National Institute of Health grant for about $3.7 million to fund a statewide and binational project in collaboration with researchers from UT-El Paso, UT-Medical Branch and with the Mexican Ministry of Health.

The bulk of these funds would be used in the Valley, Vitek said, considering the bulk of the research will be conducted locally. The project mainly focuses on mapping the areas in which the two types of mosquitoes are common around the area and going into nearby neighborhoods.

“The idea is that they will be working with epidemiologists and mathematical modelers to really engage in an extensive trapping effort of the mosquitoes and at the same time be coordinating that with monitoring the people living near the mosquitoes to see if they are showing symptoms,” Vitek said.

The proposal for the grant was just sent to the NIH and it could take months before they get any response, but if approved the research could last from 4 to 5 years, Vitek said.

¨It allows us to start putting maps together so that we start to predict where the density of the mosquitoes are going to be at that are going to transmit the disease,” Thomas said.

The university is fully equipped to handle these types of viruses, Thomas said, as it has a high-containment facility capable of handling level-3 pathogens — diseases that could be lethal when inhaled — that has been underutilized in the past.

Vitek said he has been working with Hidalgo County officials to start a smaller scale of mosquito trapping around the area to study in a controlled environment and have a better understanding ahead of a possible outbreak in the area.

“We are also going to be looking at something called vertical transmission, which is the ability of the mosquito to pass along the disease to its offspring,” Vitek said. “That has a big consequence in terms of the maintenance of the disease and the population.”

Eddie Olivarez, chief administrator officer with the Hidalgo County Department of Health and Human Services, said while currently there are no cases of localized Zika in Texas nor in Tamaulipas, there are 53 cases of people in Texas who contracted it while traveling as well as additional case investigations in the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

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