The University of Florida received five grants and nearly $3 million from the Florida Department of Health as part of its Zika Research Grant Initiative.
The awards came several months after Gov. Rick Scott authorized $25 million in funds toward Zika research and vaccine development. At UF, the Emerging Pathogens Institute played an integral role in facilitating the interdisciplinary cooperation that made many of the awarded projects possible.
Dr. Ashley Brown, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine, received over $1.14 million to lead a project titled “Identification of antiviral therapies for the treatment of Zika using existing drugs.”
“Our research strategy is to explore the antiviral activity of anti-infective agents that are already approved for clinical use,” Brown said. Currently, there are no vaccines or antiviral treatments for Zika, so her research will look into drug therapies that may decrease the Zika viral load. Since pregnant women are limited in the types of drugs they can take, the goal will be to prevent sexual transmission by giving effective antiviral therapies to men exposed to the virus.
Brown will work with Dr. John Lednicky, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and a member of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, to analyze Zika samples in order to detect mutations that may have arisen during treatment. Lednicky’s skills as a virologist are an integral part of this project’s effort to detect drugs that may trigger drug resistance in certain strains of the Zika virus.
Lednicky will also work with Dr. Hugh Fan, a professor in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering, on a project titled “Multiplexed detection platform for point-of-service testing of Zika.” Their goal is to develop a test for the Zika virus, and Lednicky will provide his expertise regarding Zika’s genetics to the effort.
Dr. J. Glenn Morris, the director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, is a consultant on Dr. Cuong Nguyen’s project, titled “Identification of potent neutralizing Zika virus antibodies using single-cell analysis technology. Nguyen, an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, received over $868,000 for the project, which will study Zika antibodies that may, in the long-term, become integral to a Zika vaccine trial.
Morris has his own project as well, which will look into the possibility of diagnosing Zika virus from samples of body fluids. His test is called, “Rapid diagnostic test of Zika virus in dried blood.”
Dr. Barry Alto received a $199,144 award for a project titled "Rapid detection of Zika and other mosquito-borne pathogens." Alto, an assistant professor in Florida's Medical Entomology Lab, is partnering with a biomolecular sciences firm to develop an inexpensive, user-friendly and rapid diagnostic Zika virus test based on innovations in synthetic biology. He hopes this test will improve Zika virus surveillance.