The University of Georgia announced Wednesday that it has entered into a collaborative research agreement with GeoVax Labs Inc. to develop and test a vaccine to prevent the emerging and virulent Zika virus infection.
The collaboration will combine the vaccine development expertise of UGA researchers led by Ted Ross, (above) 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.
The World Health Organization on Monday 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-Barré 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.
“This important partnership with GeoVax is consistent with one of our highest priorities, namely to work effectively with industry to address important challenges facing the state, the nation and the world,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research.
“We believe that the expertise of our researchers combined with GeoVax’s vaccine platform can accelerate the development and testing of a vaccine for this fast-spreading viral disease,” Ross said.
His 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 explained 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.
Vaccines using VLPs on the market today are used to prevent hepatitis and Papilloma virus infections, and others are in development.
GeoVax’s novel vaccine platform technology takes a different approach with VLPs. Instead of introducing VLPs in the vaccine, it uses recombinant DNA or recombinant viruses to produce VLPs in the person being vaccinated so that they more closely resemble the virus generated in a person’s body during a natural infection. The company’s MVA-VLP platform is focused on vaccines against HIV and hemorrhagic fever viruses, including Ebola, Marburg and Lassa. The HIV vaccine has been proven safe in human clinical trials involving over 500 individuals. It also is being evaluated for use in cancer vaccines.
“We believe our MVA-VLP vaccine platform is uniquely suited to apply to the Zika virus,” said Robert McNally, GeoVax president and CEO.
Ross’ lab will test Zika VLP vaccines developed in his lab and VLP vaccines developed with GeoVax’s vaccine platform in pre-clinical animal models.
In addition to Ross, UGA researchers working on the Zika vaccine include Ralph Tripp, Georgia Research Alliance Chair in Vaccine and Therapeutic Development; Biao He, Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator and Fred C. Davison Distinguished University Chair in Veterinary Medicine; and Mark Tompkins, associate professor of infectious diseases.