The potential to make the human body resistant to a Zika virus vaccine has been revealed after scientists in the United States and South Africa made a “breakthrough” with the body’s immune system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The virus causes symptoms including fever, rash, joint pain and red eyes. It is not generally life-threatening, but some mothers and babies experience severe birth defects. It is also transmitted to people from mosquitoes.
The CDC said that in the U.S., Zika had been found in more than 20 states, but it had not been in Hawaii, California, or Texas. The first local transmission was found in Miami Beach in 2016, the agency said.
The lab study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that if a vaccine were designed to target only a rare aspect of the virus, it could potentially be designed to specifically target the part of the human immune system that is active in response to antibodies.
That, in turn, opens up a new avenue of research for the scientists, who are now working on modifying the proteins of the Zika virus so that the immune system cannot process the full proteins and thereby render the body immune-resistant.
“If you get two or three companies actually working on this, in 10 years we could make a vaccine,” said Jamie Edwards, a CDC scientist and one of the study’s authors.
The CDC is currently working on a vaccine but cannot allow one to be tested in the United States because tests have not shown it can prevent Zika from being transmitted within the U.S.
The issue with the current approach of trying to develop a vaccine by removing the part of the virus that is turned on in response to antibodies, Edwards said, is that the immune system’s T-cells look for those parts of the virus and respond by releasing antibodies in response to them. If it is able to get rid of some of those parts, however, and replace them with just an entirely different part of the virus, it could develop a more effective vaccine.
Right now, the immunity generated by the use of anti-malarial drugs is comparable to that created by anti-Zika vaccines, according to Edwards. There is, however, no known anti-cancer drug that could eliminate immunity to the virus completely.
Scientists are now working on new anti-malarial drugs that are thought to act similarly. “We’re hoping to reproduce the same thing in the vaccine arena,” Edwards said.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.