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University of Hawaii researchers develop potential Zika vaccine

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Honolulu-based Hawaii Biotech partnered with UH to develop the vaccine, which would require two doses given three weeks apart.

University of Hawaii medical school researchers have developed a potential vaccine for the Zika virus two years after the infection linked to birth defects caused a global public health emergency.

While it would likely take years and millions of dollars in funding before it could be brought to market, its creators believe it is “potentially a safer alternative” to other treatments currently in clinical trials.

There is currently no cure or immunization against the virus, which is spread primarily by mosquitoes and through sex, but scientists at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine have proved the effectiveness of a potential vaccine in protecting mice and monkeys from the infection, a significant milestone in predicting how well it will work in humans.

A worldwide initiative to develop a vaccine for the virus, which causes fever, rash, joint pain and other ailments, has generated more than 30 candidates since outbreaks in 2015 and 2016 in Brazil connected the virus in pregnant women to severe birth defects, including microcephaly — which delays brain development — in newborns.

“One of the things we have also learned since then is there’s probably much higher rates of abortion of unborn fetuses. The virus very often will kill the fetus,” said Dr. Axel Lehrer, assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious disease at the medical school. “It clearly is transmitted from mother to unborn baby. That is what we’re trying to prevent with our vaccine.”

Researchers are using a protein from the virus made in insect cells.

Honolulu-based Hawaii Biotech partnered with UH to develop the vaccine, which would require two doses given three weeks apart.

The local tech firm will likely be the one to continue clinical trials in humans in hopes of bringing it to market, Lehrer said, adding that the company would first need to raise $5 million to $10 million to complete clinical trials and commercialize the vaccine, a process that normally takes at least 15 years. Because of the public health emergency, researchers are hoping to fast-track the vaccine. UH invested less than $100,000 for the early clinical studies.

The virus is found mostly in Africa, the Caribbean, parts of Asia, Central and South America and Mexico, as well as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and the Solomon Islands. There were no mosquito-borne Zika transmissions reported this year on the mainland or in Hawaii, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The intense search for a Zika remedy since early 2016 has required us to be agile, and we believe our vaccine candidate research demonstrates that such quick-turnaround results can be achieved in academic and scientific partnerships here in Hawaii,” Lehrer said.

The proposed vaccine was published in the journals Frontiers in Immunology and mSphere, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

The research team included senior graduate student Albert To, one of the lead authors of the scientific research paper.

“It is a breakthrough for the Zika virus. This particular vaccine is important for the immuno-compromised, the elderly and pregnant women because it doesn’t contain a live virus,” said To, who graduated from Roose­velt High School in 2007. “This could be a vaccine we could use in particularly vulnerable populations.”

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