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Business, STEM

More Firms and Research Organizations Are Working on Treatment Options for the Zika Virus


Aedes aegypti mosquitoes as seen in a lab at the Fiocruz Institute in Recife, Pernambuco State, Brazil on Jan. 26, 2016. Photographer: Mario Tammy

The past few days have been very busy and exciting in the science and research communities as several firms announced new projects for the development of vaccines to combat the Zika virus. In addition to these announcements, a magnet study to create a designer mosquito is underway.

Mosquitoes mainly feed on fruit and plant nectar, however, only the female mosquito bites humans and animals. That’s because the female mosquito needs the protein in blood to help her eggs develop. Once she’s had her fill of blood, she’ll rest for a couple of days before laying her eggs. [Ref 1]  And while there are over 3500 species of mosquitoes, the Aedes mosquito is the only one known to spread the Zika virus; it is also known to spread viruses such as dengue and cikungunya.

Mosquito Magnet Study [Ref 2]: Researchers at Rockefeller University in New York are very much aware that some people are more attractive than others to mosquitoes. The Zika virus and other diseases start with a mosquito. The mosquito needs to find someone to bite. The more attractive the person is [to mosquitoes], the more likely she will be bitten.

“We want to understand why that is,” states Leslie Vosshall, professor of neural genetics at Rockefeller University and one of the researchers leading the study. Vosshall and her team performed what they call the mosquito magnet study. “Mosquitoes, especially the mosquitoes that are spreading Zika, dengue, chikungunya, they love humans over any other animal. So they’re cuing into our body odor, the carbon dioxide in our breath, our body heat. So, it’s the body odor that I think is what distinguishes us from other non-human animals.”

Vosshall and her team are using a different type of genetic engineering to create a designer mosquito to try and understand what they are hunting. If they can figure out what makes a mosquito magnet attractive, then they can understand a big part of what mosquitoes are hunting. The desired goal is to interrupt their hunting behavior.

As Vosshall puts it, “Ultimately, how cool would it be to have a cream that you put on your arm that has a probiotic, right, that makes you demagnetized as a mosquito magnet?”

I’m personally interested in this study and its outcomes because I am one of those people that mosquitoes love.

TGV-Laboratories Antiviral Drug Study [Ref 3]: TGV-Laboratories, a New York-based pharmaceutical company, reports that its MV-4 drug candidate can break down the protective barriers of both enveloped and non-enveloped viruses, and can be developed into targeted synthetic antiviral drugs to treat the diseases. These life-threatening diseases include the Zika and Ebola viruses and HIV and Bird Flu.

Victor and George Tetz, the company’s lead researchers, said they were able to kill influenza viruses, HIV, Herpes viruses, polio and adenoviruses in laboratory tests, and that they “are eager” to test their discovery against Zika, Ebola and Bird Flu. The researchers outlined their findings in a letter to the CDC and offered their help in developing new treatments against the global health threats.

Inovio Pharmaceuticals DNA-based Vaccine Study and Oxitec Vector Control Program [Ref 4]: Inovio Pharmaceuticals has been working on a DNA-based vaccine for the Zika virus since December 2015. The vaccine has been tested on mice, and plans are to move to primate testing soon. If all goes well, the vaccine could move to human testing by the end of this calendar year.

The key detail here is that Inovio’s vaccine is DNA-based. Unlike virus-based vaccines, which can take 10 to 15 years to be approved, DNA-based treatments are seen as safer and the approval process is much faster.

The other leader in the fight against Zika is Intrexon. Oxitec, a London based firm and a subsidiary of Intrexon, is working on a “vector control” program to eliminate the Zika virus. The goal is to completely wipe out dangerous mosquito populations.

Oxitec plans to do this by developing mutant mosquitoes and releasing them into the wild. Although intentionally releasing more mosquitoes into the environment appears counter-productive, these mutants create offspring that cannot reproduce. These scientifically engineered bugs literally eliminate the gene pool. In controlled field trials, this vector control program has reduced Aeds aegypti populations by 92%-99%.

Bharat Biotech Vaccines [Ref 5]: Bharat Biotech, a firm based in the country of India, has become the first in the world to develop two potential vaccines against the Zika virus. The company’s competitive advantage over other pharmaceutical companies is that it began research on the Zika vaccine in November 2014.  The current Zika outbreak is thought to have begun in Brazil in April 2015.

“We never expected that the virus would become a serious issue,” states Krishna Ella. One attribute that drew this firm’s attention to this research is that the clinical features of early-stage Zika infection are indistinguishable from those of dengue and chikungunya, two mosquito-borne infections that are prevalent in India.

The firm is also the first company to file a patent for a Zika vaccine. The vaccine is now in pre-clinical testing as the company prepares to test it on animals. Bharat Biotech was also one of the first companies to secure the chikungunya genome in 2007.

Immunovaccine Inc. (“Immunovaccine”) to Develop a Vaccine: Immunovaccine, a clinical stage vaccine and immunotherapy company, announced this week that it also will begin a research project to develop a vaccine formulated in its DepoVax™ platform against the mosquito-borne Zika virus and infection, which may be linked to neurological birth defects in infants.

Immunovaccine says the program will build upon promising results of their earlier research with DepoVax™-based vaccines for Ebola virus, anthrax and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Immunovaccine’s proprietary DepoVax™ adjuvanting delivery platform has been shown in multiple studies to produce a strong, high-quality immune response that has a specific and sustained immune effect with the potential for single-dose effectiveness. The platform has been shown to extend exposure of the immune system to practically any antigen and can be readily combined with other vaccine development strategies.

Immunovaccine has identified an antigen for Zika virus and expects to establish collaborations with manufacturers to produce the antigen for formulation into a new vaccine.

Because its vaccines contain no water, the Company’s product candidates have shown extended stability in various storage conditions and long shelf-life at room temperature. “Our ability to manufacture vaccines quickly and easily could make it possible to speed product to market,” said Leeladhar Sammatur, Immunovaccine Director of Product Development. “If it becomes necessary to inoculate large populations quickly, these characteristics of our vaccines could be very advantageous.”

NewLink Genetics [Ref 7]: This Ames, Iowa based firm announced earlier this week that they will also be working to develop new treatment options for the Zika virus. The company states that it is in the very early stages of pre-clinical development, and with all the unknowns of Zika, does not have an estimated completion date to start human trials.

According to NewLink Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Charles Link, the project will be headed by Dr. Thomas Monath and NewLink’s Infectious Disease Division, in Devens, MA, who were behind the Ebola vaccine.

The company played an integral role in the development of the VSV-EBOV (Ebola) vaccine, and received promising data from its human trials of immuno-oncology cancer treatments. NewLink, Monath and a majority of the Infectious Disease Division were also involved in creating the dengue vaccine, which is similar to Zika, and that is enough to give Link confidence moving forward.

“We have a group that is pretty experienced in making a vaccine against this class of virus,” Link said. “Now we don’t know that a vaccine will be successfully made for humans, but it seems probable that this will be the case.”

According to an update (February 26, 2016) from the World Health Organization (WHO), a total of 52 countries and territories have reported autochthonous (local) transmission of Zika virus between January 1, 2007 and February 25, 2016. Included in this count are countries where the outbreak is now over and countries and territories that provided indirect evidence of local transmission. Among the 52 countries and territories, Marshall Islands, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago are the latest to report autochthonous transmission of Zika virus.

Most people infected with Zika virus don’t know they have the disease because they won’t have symptoms. The most common symptoms of Zika are fever, rash, joint pain, or conjunctivitis (red eyes). Other common symptoms include muscle pain and headache. However, Zika virus during pregnancy has led to increased cases of children born with microcephaly. Also, in rare cases the disease may also lead to complications including Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system which can cause paralysis.

For these and other reasons, the above research could not have come at a better time.


  1. Mosquito Facts – 33 Things You Didn’t Know About Mosquitoes, https://www.megacatch.com/mosquito-faqs/mosquito-facts/
  2. Can mutant mosquitoes be used to fight Zika and dengue fever?, reported by Judy Woodrull and Miles O’Brien on The PBS NewsHOur, March 3, 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/can-mutant-mosquitoes-be-used-to-fight-zika-and-dengue-fever/
  3. New Drug Holds Promise Against Zika, by Mike Botta, Executive Editor in Pharmaceutical Processing, March 3, 2016, http://www.pharmpro.com/news/2016/03/new-drug-holds-promise-against-zika
  4. These Two Companies Are Working On The Zika Virus Cure, February 9. 2016, in Zack’s Investment Research, http://www.zacks.com/stock/news/206807/these-two-companies-are-working-on-the-zika-virus-cure#sthash.CMV4UtiA.dpuf
  5. An Indian biotech company has been developing Zika vaccines for over a year, Madhura Karnik for Quartz India, February 4, 2016, http://qz.com/609291/this-indian-biotech-firm-is-the-worlds-first-to-ready-a-zika-vaccine-for-testing/
  6. Immunovaccine Initiates Zika Virus Vaccine Program Using Proprietary DepoVax™ Platform, Market Wired News Release, March 3, 2016, http://www.marketwired.com/press-release/immunovaccine-initiates-zika-virus-vaccine-program-using-proprietary-depovax-platform-tsx-imv-2102645.htm
  7. NewLink developing vaccine for Zika virus, by Grayson Schmidt, Staff Writer for the Ames Tribune, February 4, 2016, http://amestrib.com/news/newlink-developing-vaccine-zika-virus#sthash.pKZkuVQa.dpuf


About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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