Until the Zika virus (ZV) outbreak in Brazil caught the global medical and public health communities by surprise in 2015, ZV was considered to be a benign pathogen for healthy humans. That outbreak, associated with a massive increase in babies born with neurological and other developmental defects, with similar increases in Guillain‑Barré syndrome in adults, spiralled into an epidemic affecting other parts of South and Central America, the Caribbean and the USA.
In response, an inteR‑Departmental committee of directors general was formed to evaluate what Canada could do. The National Research Council of Canada (NRC) joined this committee and provided a comprehensive market intelligence report for ZV interventions for the Canadian federal community to assess the current state of development in ZV diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics and vector control solutions.
In addition, the NRC leveraged and mobilized its researchers' expertise in virology and animal models of infection, pregnancy models, blood-brain barrier technologies, etc. to quickly initiate internal strategic R&D in ZV infection and immunity beneficial to Canadian companies that might wish to pursue ZV vaccines and therapeutics.
NRC researchers from different domains of research collaborated very well together, understanding the need for a rapid response and seeking creative solutions to some of the administrative challenges to addressing the urgent research questions raised by the ZV epidemic. This included spreading the work over existing projects and rapid responses by both the animal care and biosafety committees to review and approve the proposed work. Together, NRC researchers:
- demonstrated that ZV can cross the blood-brain barrier
- showed that ZV infects glioblastoma cells to varying degrees, suggesting that genetically modified ZV could be developed to target therapeutics to glioblastoma cells
- developed a robust mouse model of ZV infection to test potential Zika vaccines
Some of these results were recently published in the academic journal Fluids and Barriers of the CNS.
The NRC further leveraged its business relationship with Variation Biotechnologies Inc. (VBI) to bring the company's proprietary vaccine platform into this global effort to fight the emerging Zika epidemic. To this end, VBI and the NRC submitted a joint ZV grant proposal to the National Institute of Health. This strategic collaboration between VBI and the NRC has already led to the development of a plaque reduction neutralization assay at the NRC, and a collaborative research agreement to evaluate VBI's candidate enveloped virus-like particle (eVLP) vaccines is underway.