USF awarded $2.45-million by state for Zika virus research, vaccine development

The University of South Florida continues to make Zika a research focus. That’s evident through various research projects currently in the works.

To bolster those efforts, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) recently awarded USF three grants totaling $2.45 million to conduct Zika-related research to help stop the spread of the mosquito-borne virus within Florida and beyond.

USF’s award was part of $25 million in FDOH Zika research funding announced Feb. 1 by Gov. Rick Scott to help expedite development of a vaccine to prevent Zika infection, understand and mitigate long-term impacts of the virus on children and adults and develop innovative, cost-effective Zika testing methods. USF was among the top three universities in the state to receive the most funding.

Charles J. Lockwood, MD, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine.

“While Zika is not as prevalent in the winter months, we cannot let our guard down. The threat remains real in Florida and across the country,” said Charles J. Lockwood, MD, senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine. “These new grants are very appreciated and much needed in advancing our efforts to develop vaccines and treatments and to provide better screening tests during pregnancy to protect babies from potentially devastating Zika-related birth defects.”

FDOH oversaw the grant review, which awarded applicants through a competitive process based on recommendations by the Biomedical Research Advisory Council.

The Zika virus is an infectious disease that spreads from the Aedes species mosquito. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the dangerous mosquito typically lays eggs near standing water, and the virus can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and through sex, blood transfusions, and laboratory health care exposure. Currently, no vaccine exists to fight Zika.

As of Feb. 1, the CDC reported 4,973 travel-associated and locally-transmitted Zika cases in the United States, with 1,069 of those in the state of Florida alone.

The three state grants awarded to USF are described below:

Studying how Zika infects the fetus

Dr. Lockwood, an obstetrician specializing in high-risk pregnancies, and a group of fellow researchers in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Morsani College of Medicine, were among those to receive a share of the multimillion dollar award. He and co-principal investigator Ozlem Guzeloglu-Kayisli, PhD, assistant professor, were awarded $1.14 million to study cellular and molecular mediators of  Zika virus replication and investigate how Zika gets through the placental wall, which usually acts as a barrier to keep the developing fetus safe from viruses.

Ozlem Guzeloglu-Kayisli, PhD, assistant professor at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. 

“This project will examine various tissues and strains of the Zika virus to study the cellular and molecular mechanisms of the disease, and understand how it’s transmitted from the pregnant woman to the fetus,” Dr. Guzeloglu-Kayisli said. “Our goal is to help prevent viral transmission – and to ultimately protect pregnant women and their babies.”

Facilitating Clinical Trials for a Zika Vaccine

Thomas Casale, MD, a professor in the Division of Allergy and Immunology, Department of Internal Medicine, received $1.11 million to establish an integrated Zika clinical research trial network in Florida.  He will work with a team of faculty from the Morsani College of Medicine’s Division of Allergy and Immunology, Division of Infectious Disease and International Medicine, Department of Molecular Medicine and from the USF College of Public Health to design and study new diagnostics and treatments for Zika and other emerging infectious diseases.

Thomas Casale, MD, professor in the Division of Allergy and Immunology, Department of Internal Medicine at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. 

“This grant will allow us to bring an integrated team of experts from USF Health and the local community with a diverse level of expertise on Zika to study new diagnostics, new therapies, and develop a platform that educates students and the public about this dangerous virus,” Dr. Casale said. “We hope that this collaboration will help address this public health threat, which is clearly important not only for our state, but the entire nation and the world.”

Identifying Natural Products to Combat Zika

A third grant went to USF immunologist Michael Teng, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine. Dr. Teng received $200,000 to study rapid identification of natural products with antiviral activity against Zika. He will collaborate with Bill Baker, PhD, professor in the USF Department of Chemistry.

Michael Teng, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

“We will leverage our existing expertise in virus research to study an important emerging human pathogen, which effects the health of Floridians,” Dr. Teng said. “This also gives us an opportunity to establish an interdisciplinary collaboration with Dr. Baker to identify potential lead antiviral compounds, derived from fungal species isolated from Florida mangroves.”

For more information about Zika research at USF, visit http://www.usf.edu/zika/.

Story by Vjollca Hysenlika 
Photos by Vjollca Hysenlika & Eric Younghans