Ames pharmaceutical company plans to develop Zika vaccine


Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A baby with microcephaly, effect of the Zika virus, compared to a baby with a typical head size.

Tara Larson

An Ames company recently began working on creating a vaccine for the deadly Zika virus, which is affecting South and Central America as well as European countries.

NewLink Genetics, an Ames based pharmaceutical company, made plans a few weeks ago to begin work on creating a cure for the Zika virus in the form of a vaccine. It is in the planning stage of the process.

“We’re currently making a product development plan,” said Dr. Thomas Monath, NewLink’s chief scientific officer. “We’re basically mapping it out and gathering materials.” 

The Zika virus is a disease spread through mosquito bites and blood transfusions. However, it was confirmed Feb. 2 that the virus was sexually transmitted in Dallas, Texas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease can cause fever, rash, headaches, joint pain, painful or red eyes and muscle pain. It can also lead to paralysis beginning in the lower part of the body, Monath said. 

The virus has the potential to be a large threat to pregnant women because it can cause serious damage on their unborn children. Microcephaly, a neurological development disorder has been linked to Zika.

The disorder could cause damage in the fetus’s developing brain. The child could be born without a brain and only a brain stem that leads to severe mental disabilities as well as seizures and poor motor skills.

Several deaths have been reported because of microcephaly caused by Zika.

Although the virus has been observed for decades, an outbreak has begun within the past few months. Brazil and Colombia have been the most impacted with the most reported cases. However, many countries in South America, Central America and Europe have been experiencing cases. The United States has even reported a few cases recently.

More than 1.5 million people globally have been diagnosed with the disease in the span of about one year. It can be hard to detect, making it even more of a potential risk, Monath said. 

NewLink Genetics primarily has worked on finding treatments for cancer but became more well known a few years ago when it worked on finding a cure for Ebola. However, it began researching for Zika when the epidemic began spreading.

“We see this as a major medical need,” Monath said. “We have worked on closely related diseases before. A vaccine is required.”

Monath said their Ebola and cancer treatments have taken years to work on, and it is common for a vaccine to take up to 10 years to be fully developed before becoming safe for humans to use. However, plans for this Zika vaccine are going at a much faster rate, and human trials could be tested within the next few years.

A test to more easily diagnose the virus might only take a few weeks instead of years, according to a statement by the World Health Organization on Friday. Researchers in Houston, Texas, hope to have the test available by the end of February.