VUMC scientists ‘sprint’ to find anti-Zika antibodies

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Scientists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and colleagues in Boston, Seattle and St. Louis are racing to develop — in a mere 90 days — a protective antibody-based treatment that can stop the spread of the Zika virus.

This is the first of four “scientific sprints” sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense, under a five-year cooperative agreement worth up to $28 million that was signed last year.

The program, formally known as the Pandemic Protection Platform (P3), aims to prepare and deploy protective antibody-based treatments against viral outbreaks that threaten public health and security around the globe, said the program’s research director Robert Carnahan, PhD, associate professor of Pediatrics in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

The program’s principal investigator, James Crowe Jr., MD, directs the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center and is the Ann Scott Carell Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology.

Crowe and his colleagues have developed monoclonal antibodies that will be tested in clinical trials for their ability to protect against Zika. The virus can cause severe birth defects in babies whose mothers were infected when they were pregnant.

It can take months to years, however, to develop therapeutic antibodies using conventional methods. Antibody treatments also must be given intravenously, which is difficult to provide urgently to hundreds of people in remote areas.

Instead, the researchers are trying a new, audacious tactic: isolating the nucleic acid, the messenger RNA, which encodes the antibody protein, and delivering it through a quick, intramuscular injection. Any cell that takes up the RNA will begin to produce the desired antibody almost immediately.