Baylor Launches $1 Million Zika Study To Understand Immune Response

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine hope to enroll people who were infected with Zika but had varying responses, from severe symptoms to none at all.

By Carrie FeibelJuly 11, 2016 9:30 am,

From Houston Public Media

The few things we know about the Zika virus aren’t positive: scientists now know the virus, when it infects a pregnant woman, can cause severe neurological defects in newborns. It’s also a tricky illness to track, because up to 80 percent of infected people don’t exhibit any symptoms.

“We really need to find out more about this infection, and how the body protects itself,” said Dr. Shital Patel, a researcher in infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine. She is lead investigator of the study, which starts this month and will gather data for one year.

Patients who have been infected with Zika will be enrolled at Baylor and also at Emory University in Atlanta. They will donate blood, saliva and urine samples over several months, and some for up to a year.

The research team will examine the samples to see how long the virus persists in the body, and will also search for various antibodies to the virus. One critical question they want to answer is: How does the immune system’s response vary from person to person?

“Is there a different immune response if you have mild symptoms versus moderate symptoms?” Patel said.

Patel explained other scientists need that kind of data to develop a Zika vaccine that is effective in most or all people.

“In vaccine development, we really need to know a little [more clearly] what our body makes to protect ourselves,” Patel explained. “So then when we do develop a vaccine, test the vaccine, we can look for that [same] immune response to see if that vaccine is going to protect you.”

Patel said the toughest part will be finding people who got the virus but didn’t know it because they didn’t have any symptoms. One possibility is to collaborate with blood banks. Blood banks have already begun screening blood donations for the virus, to keep it out of the blood supply. But the blood banks could also go back and contact donors whose blood tested positive, and ask if they would participate in the research.

Another idea is to identify missionaries who had traveled to South America. If one missionary had symptoms, Patel could also screen others who were on the same trip.

“We could explore if other members of that missionary group had come back and potentially been infected,” she said.

The study will begin recruiting volunteers as soon as this week.

Patel said no one knows why the virus still has not been transmitted locally within Houston or the U.S., despite warnings that it could happen soon.

“Some of that may be travel patterns, that we are at the beginning of summer and not necessarily at the end of summer and people may be doing their travel now,” she said. “It’s unclear.”

“Some would say ‘Why haven’t we had widespread chikungunya infection in Texas?’” she added. “But chikungunya infection spread fairly rapidly through the Americas and then kind of slowed down, so it’s hard to predict.”