Several biotechnology companies in the Charlottesville area are working to combat the Zika virus.
The CvilleBioHub, a new biotech networking organization, recently hosted a forum on Zika research at Indoor Biotechnologies. Three scientist-entrepreneurs gave presentations on their work to an audience of about 40, most of whom were affiliated with the biotech industry.
Zika can manifest itself as a mild disease with flu-like symptoms and a rash. But cases of Zika in pregnant women have been linked to microcephaly, a serious birth defect that affects the development of babies’ skulls and brains. Zika also has been found to cause some neurological complications in adults, including Guillain-Barré syndrome.
The Zika virus is primarily spread by two mosquito species. It also can be passed through sex from one person to another.
There have been more than 4,000 cases of Zika diagnosed in the United States since 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most are associated with travel to areas with large outbreaks, such as Brazil and Puerto Rico. However, there were 184 locally acquired mosquito-borne cases in Florida this year, and one was recently reported in Texas.
As of November, Virginia has seen 94 travel-related cases, and no locally acquired cases. But Robert W. Malone, CEO of Atheric Pharmaceutical in Troy, said mosquitoes eventually could bring the virus into the state.
“There’s a darned good chance, with this mild winter, that [Zika] is going to come roaring out of Miami next spring,” he said.
Malone said it could take a decade for new drugs or vaccines for Zika to be brought to market. That’s why his company is exploring ways to use existing drugs to protect people from Zika and treat its complications.
“Drug combinations, not vaccines, are what has made it possible for us to control AIDS,” Malone reminded the audience. “To combat a disease like this, you have to use everything.”
In its work with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, Atheric has found that an inexpensive combination of anti-malarial and anti-worm drugs can prevent infection of the Zika virus. Malone said he believes these drugs, and others, could stop a highly contagious outbreak if they are taken by a large majority of an affected population.
Sean J. Hart, president and chief scientific officer of Lumacyte, recently lent USAMRIID a machine that could facilitate the development of a Zika vaccine.
Hart’s company invented Radiance, an analytical device that uses lasers to observe the mass and shape of individual cells. This data can determine if a cell has been infected by the Zika virus.
Radiance can be used to test how well viral material used in vaccines infects different kinds of cells. It has allowed scientists to conduct these tests much more efficiently than traditional laboratory methods.
“This is a clear pain point that we’ve identified for large pharmaceutical companies,” Hart said.
Daniel A. Engel, professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology at the University of Virginia and chief scientific officer of Alexander Biodiscoveries, is currently studying a single protein of the Zika virus. His goal is to develop antibody fragments that would bind with this protein and neutralize the virus, forming the basis of an effective drug.
Alexander Biodiscoveries is collaborating on this project with RioGin — another Charlottesville biotechnology company — and other researchers at UVa and the University of Chicago.
Engel, Hart and Malone’s companies are all members of the CvilleBioHub, which will officially launch in January.
Martin D. Chapman, president and CEO of Indoor Biotechnologies, is one of the founders of the CvilleBioHub. He said the organization’s website will offer detailed and up-to-date information on every biotech company in the Charlottesville area, providing a useful resource for policymakers and potential investors.
“People don’t know a lot about the tremendous work going on here,” Chapman said.
Malone said the CvilleBioHub will help startups connect with leaders of the region’s more established biotech companies. “It’s not enough to just have money,” he said. “You need successful entrepreneurs with past success who can mentor.”