Texas Scientists Hunt For Zika Cure

University of Texas Medical Branch is at forefront of Zika research

On Galveston Island, not far from the beaches that draw many tourists, a team of scientists is racing to find a solution to a most serious subject – the Zika virus.

They are working on two fronts – to find a vaccine to stop the disease from spreading, and a medicine to treat people already infected.

"Zika is spreading quickly and so we want to find solutions to the problem of Zika infection," said Dr. Shelton Bradrick at the University of Texas Medical Branch.

He and his colleagues have already identified about 20 drugs, already approved for other ailments, that potentially also could be used to treat Zika.

"We're hopeful but that doesn't guarantee anything," he said. "It's not going to pan out until it's tested by clinical scientists in humans."

The work is urgent.

And for some, it's personal.

"It's a very big deal," said researcher Rafael Campos. "I actually know people who have been affected by Zika."

In a laboratory tucked away in a building on campus, he's working on finding a medicine to treat the disease.

"There is a lot of pressure," he said. "We want to do the best we can."

Some of the scientists even work from home.

Just off campus, professors Shannan Rossi and her husband, Nikos Vasilakis, trap mosquitoes in their backyard to use in research.

They've been involved in trying to identify the exact kind of mosquitoes most likely to carry Zika and have made progress on that front.

And like their teammates, they are working overtime to help.

"If you say to a mother who's expecting her firstborn child and who's also been infected with Zika that there's nothing you can do for her, that's the kind of thing that keeps us up and keeps us going," Rossi said.

Back on campus, Dr. Pei-Yong Shi and his team recently cloned a strain of the Zika virus.

"This is the fun part of doing science," the Chinese-born researcher said. "The reward, the excitement, it's not anything else you can have. It was a great feeling."

Armed with the clone, they hope to come up with a vaccine.

One way, he said, was to make a medicine with part of the virus, but without the disease-causing elements.

Simply put, get the vaccine and you become immune to Zika, and don't get sick.

"With all the efforts around the world with different approaches … I'm quite optimistic," Shi said.

It is a global push.

"For this, we're throwing everything at the problem," Rossi said of her fellow scientists.

And with the work being done at UTMB, Galveston is right in the middle of it.

Researchers caution that finding any vaccine or treatment could be many months away. But they're no doubt a lot closer thanks to the work being done in this Texas resort town.

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