Campus News

UGA partners with biotechnology firm to develop Zika vaccine

Ted Ross (Credit: Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

UGA has entered into a collaborative research agreement with GeoVax Labs Inc. to develop and test a vaccine to prevent the Zika virus infection.

The collaboration will combine the vaccine development expertise of UGA researchers led by Ted Ross, director of UGA’s Center for Vaccines and Immunology, with GeoVax’s novel vaccine platform technology. Ross, a professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in Infectious Diseases in the College of Veterinary Medicine, joined UGA last fall.

On Feb. 1, the World Health Organization declared Zika virus an international health emergency, noting that Zika is spreading explosively and could affect as many as 4 million people in the Americas by the end of the year. The mosquito-transmitted virus is linked with birth defects in thousands of babies in Brazil, and more recently, with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nervous system. The virus is anticipated to spread to countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, with the exception of Canada and Chile.

There is no proven vaccine or treatment for Zika, which is closely related to yellow fever, dengue and chikungunya viruses, also transmitted to people by mosquitoes.

Ross’ research group focuses on designing, developing and testing vaccines-including what are called VLP-based vaccines-for emerging viral diseases including dengue, chikungunya and Ebola as well as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus and HIV/AIDS.

VLPs—virus-like particles—mimic a live virus but do not contain genetic material; they cannot replicate or cause infection, yet they elicit a strong immune response in the cells of the person being vaccinated. Ross said that vaccines made with VLPs give the immune system a head start in fighting infection.

“When a person vaccinated with a VLP virus is infected by the real virus, the immune system is ready to fight back,” he said.

In addition to Ross, UGA researchers working on the Zika vaccine include Ralph Tripp, who holds the Georgia Research Alliance Chair in Vaccine and Therapeutic Development; Biao He, Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator and holder of the Fred C. Davison Distinguished University Chair in Veterinary Medicine; and Mark Tompkins, associate professor of infectious diseases.