NDSU grad student works to find vaccine for Zika

FREDERICK, Md. -- A graduate student at North Dakota State University is doing research to help combat the Zika virus. Rafaela "Rafa" Medeiros, who is pursuing a master's degree in public health at NDSU, is part of a team from the Southern Resear...

Rafaela Medeiros, left, works with senior biologist Beth Snyder in the infectious disease research lab at the Southern Research Institute in Frederick, MD., Medeiros, a North Dakota State University graduate student, is doing research on how the Zika virus replicates in human neuronal tissue. Medeiros hails from an area of Brazil where that countries outbreak of Zika was first noticed in 2015. Undated photo supplied by Southern Research Institute.

FREDERICK, Md. - A graduate student at North Dakota State University is doing research to help combat the Zika virus.

Rafaela "Rafa" Medeiros, who is pursuing a master's degree in public health at NDSU, is part of a team from the Southern Research Institute analyzing the Zika virus for clues that could lead to a disease-fighting vaccine.

Medeiros is from the Brazilian coastal city of Natal, one of the first places the Zika outbreak was noticed in 2015.

"Obviously, it's very personal to me because I'm from Brazil, and my city was ... right in the region where the outbreak sort of started," Medeiros said. "My parents are physicians, and they are involved with (the Zika issue) on a daily basis."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded in April that Zika causes microcephaly and other severe brain defects in babies, and that a woman infected with Zika during pregnancy has an increased risk of having a baby with those problems. The CDC recommends pregnant women avoid traveling to areas where Zika is actively spreading.


Microcephaly is a condition in which a baby's head develops much smaller than generally expected. Babies with microcephaly can suffer a range of problems depending on their case's severity, the CDC said, including seizures, developmental delays or intellectual disabilities, problems with movement and balance, feeding problems, and hearing and vision problems.

Severe microcephaly can be life-threatening, the CDC said.

Medeiros is studying the differences between the African and Asian strains of the Zika virus, and how they replicate in human neuronal cell tissues. The aim is to get a better understanding of how the virus' mechanisms affect neuronal tissue, she said.

"It's exploratory research" and still in early experimental stages, she said.

Her work at the institute fulfills her practicum requirements at NDSU-and is important, Medeiros said.

"For someone who wants to help the community, and help people. ... It would be a good start," Medeiros said.

She was recruited to work at the nonprofit Southern Research Institute by Dr. Nathan Fisher, a former instructor with NDSU's Master's in Public Health program.

Fisher said Medeiros' work can be used to determine if different drugs or therapies block the interaction between the Zika virus and neuronal cells.


But coming up with a vaccine won't happen overnight, Medeiros and Fisher say.

"The goal for us, for everyone in the health-related areas, is to come up with a vaccine. But that's a very long process," Medeiros said, adding there is still a lot to learn about Zika.

Fisher said developing a drug or vaccine to fight the virus is something that could take years.

"But the U.S. government and other governments have made a dedicated effort to move quickly", he said.

The most common method of virus transmission is through the bite of an Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus mosquito, according to a Southern Research Institute website on Zika. Zika can also be transmitted sexually from an infected man to his partners.

In order to carry the Zika virus, a mosquito must first draw blood from a human or animal that is already infected. Once a mosquito comes in contact with the virus, it can pass it to other humans through the saliva it secretes when biting.

Once a human is infected, he or she is most at risk of spreading the virus during the first two weeks of infection. After that, the virus usually subsides and most people develop an autoimmunity and are protected from future infections.

Not everyone who has Zika experiences symptoms. The most common symptoms are fever, rash, joint pain and conjunctivitis (red eyes). There is also a rare chance of contracting a more severe condition like Guillain-Barre syndrome.


The risk of Zika is "actually significant" in the U.S., Medeiros said, particularly in warmer states.

"The colder areas, like North Dakota for example, we don't have the Aedes species of mosquito yet," she said. "But the mosquito has adapted" and ranges over much of the southern United States.

"It's a significant risk, I think, for parts of the U.S. because the mosquito is adapting fast to colder temperatures," she said. "Something has to be done."

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