It's mosquito season, and with mosquitos come the viruses they sometimes carry. This year, the Zika virus has spread rapidly through the Americas. Researchers have kicked into overdrive to try and find tests, vaccines and cures for the virus, which has resulted in birth defects like microcephaly in babies born to mothers who were infected during pregnancy.
After winning the Latin American QuickFire Challenge in her native Brazil, professor Leda Castilho was awarded a six-month residency at the JLABS @ TMC incubator here in Houston, where she and her team of researchers have temporarily relocated to perform the research she hopes will help with diagnosing and treating Zika.
"The Zika virus arrived in Brazil in late April last year, and within one month, it was already in six separate states in Brazil," Castilho says. "Until that time almost no one was studying the virus, almost no scientific reports had been made."
Back home in Rio de Janeiro, Castilho and her team had been researching yellow fever, a virus in the same family as Zika. But as reports of the dangerous effects of Zika spread, she decided to switch focus. "I thought our team should take our experience with yellow fever to work on Zika," she says.
The World Health Organization has declared the Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern. Here in Houston, where the Aedes aegypti—the mosquito that carries viruses like Zika—flourishes, Mayor Sylvester Turner has been asking for state and federal funds to help fight the virus, which experts fear could spread easily and quickly in the Bayou City. For Castilho, a location at JLABS in Houston, with easy access to the research institutions of the Texas Medical Center, gives her team the opportunity to work more quickly to fight the virus.
Castilho's research focuses on recombinant viral proteins, which look very similar to Zika but don't contain any genetic material of the virus. This technology, she says, can lead to developing diagnostic tools, therapies and vaccines. Specifically, the researchers are working to reduce the viral load of infected individuals, which could make a huge difference for infected pregnant women and their developing fetuses.
Any vaccine that's developed will take several years to get tested and approved, but diagnostic tests and treatment could come to market much faster. Castilho's team is working with other research teams in Brazil, Germany and around the U.S. to try and make a difference in the spread of the virus as soon as possible. "Many people are collaborating and this is a positive thing," Castilho says. "People are sharing their data and discussing with each other, so that the global scientific community can move faster to combat this virus."