The University of Nottingham has received funding after responding to the Medical Research Council’s call to arms to fast-track research into Zika virus.
Professor Sir John Savill, the MRC’s chief executive said: “Two very important elements needed to come together in order to respond to the global health threat from the Zika virus – agility and capacity.
“Our Rapid Response Initiative allowed us to allocate funding to this global research challenge within a very short time frame, and valuable contributions from the Wellcome Trust and the Newton Fund created the capacity to match the remarkably strong response we received from the research community. Working in partnership is vital if we are to successfully tackle the health risks posed by emerging infections such as the Zika virus.”
A successful application for part of this funding of £93,638, was led by Dr Janet Daly, Associate Professor in Emergent Viruses in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at The University of Nottingham, aims to develop a more specific diagnostic test for Zika virus.
The detection of Zika
The Zika virus itself can only be detected in the bloodstream of patients for a brief period; therefore diagnosis by detection of a class of antibodies (IgM) that appear in the blood soon after infection is more reliable.
The problem is that it is hard to tell the difference between antibodies the body makes in response to the Zika virus from those made to its very close relative, Dengue virus. To make matters worse, both viruses are spread by the same species of mosquito so they are equally likely to occur in areas where those mosquitoes are found.
Dr Daly explained: “Our proposal aims to produce proteins made by both viruses so that antibodies can be detected in parallel. We should be able to rapidly produce a relatively crude assay (called a MAC-ELISA) in which it is assumed that the highest signal will be given against protein from the virus the patient was most recently exposed to.”
Harnessing the power of plant expression
The plan is to then introduce specific changes to the proteins so that the test can better distinguish between antibodies that result from Zika virus infection and those made in response to Dengue virus.
“Key to the proposal is that we will be harnessing the power of plant expression technology to produce the different proteins rapidly,” said co-investigator Professor George Lomonossoff of the John Innes Centre.
Along with Dr Frank Sainsbury, his PhD student, Professor Lomonossoff was awarded the prestigious title of BBSRC Innovator of the Year in 2012 for his work in developing the system for producing proteins in plants.
The project would not be possible without the assistance of Professor Luís Carlos de Souza Ferreira of the University of São Paulo who will rigorously test how well the assay performs with real samples.
Dr Daly adds: “Although Zika is unlikely to be a direct threat to us here in the UK because the virus is spread by mosquitoes only found in tropical climates, in my view, it is important that we apply our expertise and technologies and collaborate internationally to help combat dangerous emerging viruses.”
Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: “The speed at which Zika moved from being a relatively obscure tropical disease to a global health emergency has taken us all by surprise, and illustrates just how vulnerable the world is to emerging infections.”
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for three years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.
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