Blood in a test tube

Vaccine to combat deadly Zika virus

Working on a vaccine to combat the deadly Zika virus is important and exciting, but it just part of an even bigger vision for Professor John Hayball. He and his team are developing a new viral vaccine vector platform with potential application across a range of diseases and allergies, as well as cancer immunotherapy.

The project is a partnership with Melbourne-based biotechnology company Sementis Ltd, which has invested $4 million to help UniSA’s Experimental Therapeutics Laboratory develop from first principles a new approach that could quickly and effectively be adapted to a range of emerging situations.

Initial success came in late 2015 with a vaccine for the Chikugunya virus, and preparations are under way for the manufacturer of clinical material for use in toxicity studies and early-phase clinical trials. 

Attention has now switched to the Zika virus, which is spread by the same group of mosquitoes as Chikugunya and Dengue Fever and for which there is currently no treatment. Pre-clinical laboratory-based experiments have now commenced.

“What we’re hoping to do here is not only prove that our approach is the best way to make vaccines for emerging infectious diseases, but that we can really make a difference with this urgent situation,” Prof Hayball said.

The new platform uses genetic engineering techniques to insert genes for antigens from different diseases; so Chikungunya genes to make the Chikungunya vaccine and Zika genes to make the Zika vaccine.

“The platform is a bit like a cassette system that we can plug in and play; so we plug the platform with different antigens to target a specific condition,” Prof Hayball said. “The beauty of it is that it’s not a one-product platform.”

UniSA is also collaborating with the Robinson Research Institute at the University of Adelaide to investigate the possible link between Zika virus and the birth deformity microcephaly, which was highlighted by the World Health Organization following an outbreak in Brazil last year.

Zika virus already has been detected in 23 countries in the Americas and the WHO fears that millions of people could be affected. “It’s really a race against time to find a vaccine,” Prof Hayball said.