BIDMC Scientists Lead the Race against Zika
In the summer of 2016, Mass. Senator Edward Markey visited the
laboratory of Dan Barouch, M.D., Ph.D., at Beth Israel Deaconess
Medical Center. His purpose in visiting was of utmost importance: he
needed to report back to Congress the current state of Zika vaccine
research and the urgency of providing federal funding for this global
Today, Barouch and his team are addressing one of today’s most pressing
global health priorities: finding an effective Zika vaccine. As the
Director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at BIDMC,
Barouch spent more than a decade investigating HIV before studying
Zika. His team tested three Zika vaccines in mice and subsequently in
monkeys. Remarkably, each one produced 100 percent protection—the
world’s first-ever demonstration of Zika vaccine efficacy in animals.
Today, his team is conducting a first-in-human clinical trial
evaluating one of these Zika vaccines at BIDMC. Here, Barouch talks
about the critical nature of his Zika work and the pivotal role of
GM: How did you decide to study Zika virus after more than 12 years of
DB: Our interest in studying Zika began in January 2016, when we saw
headlines about its explosive spread and devastating consequences in
infants and pregnant women. It was immediately clear that a vaccine was
needed as a key global health countermeasure. We reasoned that the
development of a Zika vaccine would also be a tractable target—which means
it will likely be successful—for several reasons. First, Zika virus has
very little variability: each virus particle is nearly genetically
identical, unlike HIV. There is also clear evidence of natural protective
immunity in humans: most adults infected with Zika make a full recovery.
GM: You recently began a Phase 1 clinical trial evaluating a Zika vaccine
in humans, one of few internationally. Tell me more about the trial.
DB: Yes, our study is one of three first-in-human studies evaluating a
Zika-inactivated virus vaccine. We started in November 2016, and we have
enrolled a total of 36 participants. This inactivated virus vaccine—the
same type of vaccine as a flu shot—is promising because: (1) it’s a
well-established, effective vaccine for this class of viruses, (2) it can
be manufactured quickly, and (3) it allows for rapid development. The
Clinical Principal Investigator is Dr. Kathryn Stephenson, and the trial is
being conducted here at BIDMC in the Center for Virology and Vaccine
Research’s clinical trials unit. This study is a collaboration with the
Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which manufactured the vaccine.
GM: The speed of your progress in investigating possible Zika vaccines has
been incredible considering you started just one year ago. In the
scientific world, that kind of progress can take years, even decades.
DB: We were able to make very rapid progress. It took just four months to
demonstrate vaccine proof-of-concept in mice, six months to establish
proof-of-concept in monkeys, and ten months to begin a clinical trial in
humans—for a virus that had never been studied before. Our goal was not
only to test candidate vaccines, but also to understand the science behind
how the immune system can block Zika infection. Dozens of groups around the
world were racing to show Zika vaccine efficacy in animals.
GM: What do you attribute your fast progress to, and does it relate to your
many years studying HIV?
DB: Absolutely. We could never have made these rapid advances for Zika
without the laboratory infrastructure and knowledge we had from our HIV
work. Zika is a very different virus than HIV, but much of the laboratory
technology to make and test vaccines is the same. In my lab, we have
experts in all the different areas required to produce and to study vaccine
candidates. Over the years, we have received significant support from
philanthropy that has allowed us to make rapid progress for both our HIV
work and our Zika work.
GM: So has philanthropy had a role in catalyzing your work?
DB: Funding through philanthropy was fundamental to our success in
developing and testing Zika vaccine candidates. When we started our Zika
work, we relied on flexible philanthropic support, because the timeline to
obtain federal grants is long, and those funds were absolutely critical to
our ability to engage rapidly in this important research area. Philanthropy
is vitally important for researchers to conduct high risk, high reward
work, which isn’t typically eligible for NIH funding. Zika is the perfect
example: the World Health Organization declared Zika an international
public health emergency in February 2016, but Congress took more than seven
months to approve NIH funding for Zika research. It will take roughly
another full year from that time before grants are awarded. Flexible
philanthropic support that allows scientists to do creative and timely work
GM: If you received philanthropic funding for your Zika work tomorrow, what
would be the first thing you do with it? How would additional support
advance your work and its potential impact?
DB: With more funding, we would be able to immediately test more Zika
vaccine candidates. We would also conduct larger-scale clinical trials in
regions of the world that are most burdened by Zika—where these vaccines
are the most relevant. Though initial testing for safety and immunogenicity
of a vaccine can be conducted at BIDMC, ultimately we aim to test vaccines
with more participants in field trials. The more vaccine candidates we
test, the better. The impact could be tremendous in protecting infants
worldwide from Zika virus and its devastating effects. That’s our mission
through our work on HIV and Zika: to tackle the most critical global health
problems and to make a lasting impact on human health. We want to help
eradicate the Zika epidemic at a faster pace than any prior vaccine
development effort in history.
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