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Scientists develop improved, potentially safer Zika vaccine

The worldwide Zika threat first emerged in 2015, infecting millions as it swept across the Americas. It struck great fear in pregnant women, as babies born with severe brain birth defects quickly overburdened hospitals and public health care systems.

In response, there has been a flurry of heroic scientific efforts to stop Zika. Whole governments, academic labs and pharmaceutical companies have raced to develop Zika vaccines ever since global health experts first realized the dangers wrought by the mosquito-borne virus.

Now, ASU has taken a major step forward in boosting Zika prevention efforts.

ASU Biodesign Institute scientist Qiang “Shawn” Chen has led his research team to develop the world’s first plant-based Zika vaccine that could be more potent, safer and cheaper to produce than any other efforts to date.

“Our vaccine offers improved safety and potentially lowers the production costs more than any other current alternative, and with equivalent effectiveness,” said Chen, a researcher in the Biodesign Center for IVV and professor in the School of Life Sciences. “We are very excited about these results.”

Rapid response network

Several potential Zika vaccines have had promising results in early animal and human tests. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first human testing of a Zika vaccine candidate, and this summer, a $100 million U.S. government-led clinical trial is underway.

But currently, there are no licensed vaccines or therapeutics available to combat Zika.

Several dedicated ASU scientists also heeded the call to action, wanting to use their special know-how to find a way to overcome the pandemic crisis.

First, ASU chemist Alexander Green, along with collaborators at Harvard, developed a more rapid and reliable Zika test, an achievement highlighted by Popular Science in its “Best of What’s New” of 2016.

Now, Chen may have come up with a better vaccine candidate based on a key Zika protein. Chen is a viral expert who has worked for the past decade on plant-based therapeutics and vaccines against West Nile virus and Dengue fever, which come from the same Zika family, called flaviviruses.

He honed in on developing a vaccine against a part of a Zika viral protein, called DIII, that plays a key role for the virus to infect people.