UNC Health Talk

UNC researchers awarded pilot grants for Zika research

The University of North Carolina School of Medicine Office of Research has awarded three Emerging Challenges in Biomedical Research (ECBR) grants to UNC medical investigators researching Zika virus.

The Zika virus is the focus of all three UNC-led research pilot grants, which are for $50,000 for one year for each team, said Jennifer Brennan, PhD, director of the school’s office of research. The intent of the awards is to support innovative, early stage research relevant to the priorities set by the National Institutes of Health.

“Zika is an emerging insect-borne infectious disease, about which little is known even though it was discovered over 50 years ago in Uganda, Africa,” said Blossom Damania, PhD, incoming vice dean for research at the School of Medicine and Cary C. Boshamer Distinguished Professor of Microbiology and Immunology.

Zika is an emerging insect-borne infectious disease, about which little is known even though it was discovered over 50 years ago.

“The recent spread of Zika across the Americas, and the link to microcephaly has put the virus in the spotlight.

“Here at UNC Chapel Hill, we are fortunate to have infectious disease specialists and virologists who are global leaders in the field,” she added, “who are actively working to understand the biology and transmission of Zika virus.”

Juan Song, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, and Helen Lazear, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, are studying the effects of Zika on the adult brain. Song and Lazear will investigate Zika’s potential associated health effects on the neuronal stem cells in the adult brain, which are currently unknown. This inquiry, which involves a powerful mouse model of Zika virus infection and sophisticated neuronal assays, has the potential to uncover long-term neurological effects on learning and memory in addition to the recently established roles for Zika in microcephaly in infants and Guillain-Barré syndrome in adults.

Elizabeth Stringer, MD, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Aravinda de Silva, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology, Jeff Stringer, MD, professor of a obstetrics and gynecology, Matt Collins, MD, PhD, infectious diseases fellow, and Lazear are studying the epidemiology and effective diagnostics of the maternal-fetal transmission of Zika. Seventy-five percent of people infected by Zika don’t show any symptoms, de Silva said during a recent expert panel discussion on Zika research and response in North Carolina.

“A critical issue is diagnostics,” de Silva said. “All these reports you see – so many cases of microcephaly, so many people being hospitalized with Zika – many of these are just a clinical diagnosis.” A lab test for Zika has yet to be developed, he added.

Sylvia Becker-Dreps, MD, MPH, assistant professor of family medicine; Myron Cohen MD, associate vice chancellor for global health at UNC, the Yeargan-Bate Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology, and Epidemiology, and director of the Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases; and Filemon Bucardo of the University of Nicaragua-Leon, are studying Zika as a sexually transmitted infection. Unlike similar mosquito-borne viruses, Zika can also be transmitted sexually. According to the World Health Organization, six countries – including the United States – have reported cases of sexually transmitted Zika cases.

“We hope these awards will jumpstart and bolster research being conducted by UNC Chapel Hill investigators in the current fight against the Zika virus outbreak, and will help position these investigators for competitive extramural awards that will increase our ability to mitigate the impact Zika virus has on human health,” Damania said.

Sylvia Becker-Dreps, Aravinda de Silva, and Jeffrey Stringer are members of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases.