Researchers from the UNC School of Medicine and Duke University have received a $3 million grant to conduct Zika research.
The virus causes severe birth defects in the babies of infected pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded the funding to develop better diagnostic tests.
Dr. Aravinda de Silva is the lead researcher. His lab is based at the UNC Department of Microbiology and Immunology. The lab has already developed a test for dengue, another blood-borne virus.
“The challenge for us was to, based on work that we've been doing for many years on dengue, this partnership and grant with the CDC was to come up with a specific diagnostic for Zika as well,” de Silva said.
Currently, Zika and dengue can be difficult to tell apart. Both are carried by mosquitoes and prevalent in tropical areas. The Zika virus causes mild symptoms in most patients, but severe birth defects in babies of women who are infected while pregnant.
De Silva said the team hopes to develop a better test to diagnose Zika, which is hard to distinguish from other diseases. The researchers conduct clinical studies at UNC using blood samples from Central Americans and travelers who have been infected with the virus.
“It's very difficult to say whether someone has a dengue infection or a Zika infection from some of the lab tests that are commonly being used to diagnose those infections,” he said.
Dr. Matt Collins is a fellow at the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases. He said the group’s research could also lead to better vaccines.
“Vaccines are really a best buy in modern medicine public health,” Collins said. “And having effective vaccines can avert a lot of illness and even death in many cases.”