Meet the Brazilian Scientist Working to Develop a Zika Vaccine
Her team's efforts may one day vanquish the virus.
By Ginny Graves
With mosquito season around the corner, concerns over Zika continue to climb—making one Brazilian scientist’s cutting-edge work particularly timely.
Leda Castilho, Ph.D., a professor at the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro’s Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute of Graduate Studies and Engineering Research, is conducting research on the Zika virus—research that has the potential to lead to a vaccine. Last year, Castilho was named the winner of Johnson & Johnson’s Latin American QuickFire Challenge, an initiative created by Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, in collaboration with pharmaceutical company Janssen Brazil with the goal of developing innovative healthcare technology focused on preventing and eradicating diseases in Latin America. We caught up with Castilho to hear more about her team’s work with the Zika virus—and how their efforts may one day help vanquish it.
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Q: When did you start studying Zika?
A: When Zika hit in 2015, my rationale was that everyone who had been working on a related virus should start looking at Zika so we could make progress as quickly as possible toward a treatment or vaccine. I’d been working in the lab to develop a vaccine for yellow fever, which belongs to the same virus family as dengue, West Nile and Zika, so I shifted my focus to Zika—a lot of scientists did.
Q: What is your Zika research focused on?
A: We’re trying to develop virus-like particles (VLPs) that resemble the outer surface of the virus. VLPs could have three important uses:
- Diagnostic testing tools to help distinguish a Zika infection from related viruses, like dengue.
- Hyper-immune serum to be used as an emergency tool to reduce the viral load in people who are infected.
- A VLP-based vaccine to protect from infection.
Q: What motivates you to do the work you do?
A: When a pregnant woman becomes infected with Zika, the virus can be transmitted to the fetus and cause microencephaly, a serious birth defect in which a baby’s brain doesn’t develop properly. Though I don’t know any women personally who were infected with Zika while pregnant, hearing about those cases breaks my heart.
If we can develop better diagnostic tools, we’ll be able to identify pregnant women who’ve been exposed. If we had a hyper-immune serum, we could potentially give it to a pregnant woman to try to minimize the likelihood of transmission to her fetus.
Vaccines are the most efficient and effective tool we have to protect people’s health, so that’s the ultimate goal. A VLP-based vaccine would be safer than most other vaccines because, unlike vaccines made from dead viruses or live attenuated viruses, it doesn’t contain any genetic material from the virus. Several research groups in different countries are working on the development of a vaccine for the Zika virus. If one of us can achieve that, then it will be a huge accomplishment.