Vaccine for chikungunya virus is in development by NC State scientists at Raleigh lab


Scientists at N.C. State University are working with a Raleigh bio-tech company to develop a vaccine for chikungunya, the mosquito-borne virus that has affected 10 North Carolina residents this summer, Jonathan Black reports for The State.

N.C. State scientists Dennis Brown and Raquel Hernandez began researching vaccines for arthropod-based viruses in the 1990s, prior to the outbreak of chikungunya (chik-en-GOON-ya).

Each of this summer’s cases of the illness in North Carolina has developed from people have who traveled to the Caribbean. But Florida has seen its first home-grown case of the virus.

“We knew historically these viruses would be able to emerge in several regions, because vectors carrying diseases have moved into areas that are not tropical,” Hernandez said.

There are about 700 viruses transmitted by insects, with about 200 of those having the potential to infect humans.

Of the 700 viruses, the majority are within two subtypes: flavivirus and alphavirus. Flavivirus and alphavirus differ structurally and antigentically — the way an infectious organism alters its proteins to evade immune responses — so the viruses reside in different mosquitoes.

Symptoms of chikungunya, an alphavirus, may include fever and joint pain, headache, muscle pain, joint swelling and a rash.

Brown said he was surprised by how fast the vaccine came together for chikungunya — only about a month.

“The technology we’ve developed can now be very rapidly applied to any of the 700 known arthropod-centric viruses,” Brown said.

Testing on mice

Malcolm Thomas, president and CEO of Raleigh’s Arbovax, said the company initially worked on dengue fever, a flavivirus, but wanted to look at other targets and chose chikungunya. Testing completed on mice almost two years ago.

“Mice were a really good model for chikungunya because they get the same symptoms humans get,” he said. “After vaccination, a number of targets did not get sick, so we felt confident we had good samples.”

Last year, a pre-investigational new drug application was submitted to the FDA, which is designed to facilitate sponsors for treatment of viral infections. Thomas said it received a favorable review by the FDA.

Arbovax is now finishing up raising money to move the vaccine into the first phase of testing on humans.

“We’ve been incredibly surprised and happy that it has moved so quickly. The science of it was picture perfect,” Thomas said. “It worked exactly how we thought it would to add other targets rapidly down the road.”

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