BREAKTHROUGHS BLOG

December 04, 2016

Research Roundup: A Zika treatment, an HIV cure, and a MERS vaccine

Senior Program Assistant
GHTC

Scientists at University of California, San Francisco have identified several drugs that block the Zika virus from infecting brain cells. After determining the types of brain cells susceptible to Zika, the researchers screened more than 2,000 Food and Drug Administration–approved medicines for their ability to protect these cells from the virus. The project revealed that azithromycin, a commonly used antibiotic, could provide protection against Zika in laboratory-grown brain cells. Not only is azithromycin widely available, it is also safe for use in pregnant women, an important characteristic as Zika infection during pregnancy can impede fetal development and result in devastating birth defects.

An existing drug for gastrointestinal disorders has shown promise in treating and potentially even curing HIV in monkeys. Existing treatment—antiretroviral therapy (ART)—suppresses HIV, making the virus nearly undetectable in the blood, however, adherence is critical as just a few weeks off of treatment can result in a resurgence of the virus. Due to the demands of adherence and the expensive and toxic nature of many of these medicines, only one third of patients in the United States manage to keep the virus at these undetectable levels. Now researchers may have found a “functional cure” for HIV. The drug—vedolizumab—is approved to treat ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease in more than 50 countries. In preclinical trials, vedolizumab kept the virus at bay in monkeys for up to two years after cessation of treatment. The National Institutes of Health recently initiated human clinical trials in which people living with HIV/AIDS will receive infusions of vedolizumab every four weeks. After several months, patients will stop taking ART, and their HIV viral load will be closely monitored to determine if the same curative effect is seen in humans.

Child receiving vaccination in Xieng Khouang province, Laos.
Child receiving vaccination in Xieng Khouang province, Laos. (Photo: PATH/Aaron Joel Santos)

An experimental vaccine against Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has successfully combatted the virus in mouse models and offers new insights into the design of subunit vaccines. Vaccines prompt the immune system to develop antibodies that recognize and attack a specific pathogen. Different proteins on the surface of a virus can elicit the production of distinct antibodies that vary in their ability to mobilize a robust immune response. Rather than using the entire virus, subunit vaccines contain specific proteins found on the surface of the virus. Consequently, scientists are able to include only the proteins that elicit the strongest immune response. However, this approach exposes the immune system to certain parts of the virus (i.e., the underside of these surface proteins) that wouldn’t normally be visible, and this can distract the immune system, prompting it to produce ineffective antibodies. In developing a subunit vaccine against MERS, researchers at New York Blood Center overcame this challenge by masking the spot on the vaccine that was distracting the immune system. The slightly tweaked vaccine has proved to be much more effective in protecting mice from MERS. Not only does this finding offer promise for the MERS vaccine, but this technique could be used to increase the efficacy of other subunit vaccines.

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