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The Daily Tar Heel

This UNC research team is trying to patent a potential Zika vaccine

Ralph Baric zika virus

Professor Ralph Baric at UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health 

Photo courtesy of Linda Kastleman— UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

CORRECTION: Due to a production error, an earlier version of this article spelled Ralph Baric's name incorrectly in the photo caption. The story has been udpated. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

A team of UNC researchers filed a patent for a potential Zika virus vaccine in late January. No vaccine or treatment exists yet for the Zika virus, which gained notoriety in recent years, particularly during the 2016 summer Olympic Games.

The patent covers specific proteins on the Zika virus that contribute to initiating the body’s immune response. The Zika virus is made up of 180 proteins that form a ball-like structure. The research team, led by professor Ralph Baric and assisted by postdoctoral scholar Jessica Plante, graduate research assistant Jesica Swanstrom and research technician Matthew Begley, discovered that some of these individual proteins can be manipulated in ways to decrease the virus’s effects on the body.

Although the patent is not a vaccine itself, the framework it provides can be used to help develop future vaccines, according to Begley. 

The best way to think of the new patent is similar to that of a completed Lego set, he said. The Zika virus’s surface is the finished Lego set, which is made up of many blocks. The patent contains instructions for how to build the final "Lego set" and manipulate the ways in which the “blocks” fit together. By changing the ways in which the “blocks” fit together, researchers can hopefully achieve a better immune response to reduce the spread of the Zika virus and lead to a reduction of symptoms, Begley said.

The Centers for Disease Control has identified the Ae. aegypti and Ae. albopictus mosquitoes as the carriers of the disease. When a victim is bitten by an affected mosquito, symptoms include a fever, rash, headache, muscle pain and red eyes. For most patients, the symptoms are not severe and usually resolve within several days to a week.

However, the virus can cause severe complications in developing babies, such as microcephaly that may lead to death in some cases. 

No local mosquito-borne Zika cases have been cited in North America, which is credited to winter months disrupting mosquito populations.

However, UNC students who plan on traveling abroad this summer to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central America, South America, Carpe Verde, Singapore and certain Pacific Islands should be mindful of infected mosquitos. In summer 2018, there were 71 UNC students who traveled to South American countries affected by the Zika virus, although no students were infected, said Heather Ward, associate dean of UNC's Study Abroad Office.

“We are always concerned about the risks to our students and faculty when they are traveling. This is why we continuously monitor disease outbreaks, political unrests, and natural disasters very closely in areas where our students and faculty will be," Ward said. 

UNC Global also encourages students traveling to countries affected by the Zika virus to “protect themselves by preventing mosquito bites” on its website.

Students studying abroad to affected countries this summer can protect themselves by wearing long pants, applying bug repellant, using condoms during sexual intercourse and sleeping in rooms with air conditioning and screened windows. 


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