Australian biotech joins race to develop Zika vaccine


A vaccine developed by Australian biotech company Sementis could be re-purposed to help prevent the spread of the Zika virus.

Transmitted by the aedes mosquito, Zika is suspected to be behind a surge in cases of the serious birth defect microcephaly in the Americas in recent months.

The virus has already been detected in 23 countries in the Americas including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, and yesterday The World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a global health emergency.

Zika could infect three to four million people, and whilst most cases show no life-threatening symptoms, the threat to pregnant mothers and their unborn children is thought to be serious.

There is currently no vaccine or treatment for Zika, but now researchers around the world are racing to develop one that is safe and effective.

One multi-partner collaboration has already declared its aim of developing a vaccine for widespread use before the end of 2016. Pharma company Inovio is working with Laval University, Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory, the University of Pennsylvania and South Korea's GeneOne Life Science on their candidate.

Today, Sementis, a privately-held biotech, has declared it also has an advanced candidate, through its research partnership with the University of South Australia in Adelaide.

UniSA's Experimental Therapeutics Laboratory and the Melbourne-based biotech have jointly developed a proven vaccine platform to quickly develop new vaccines for a range of viruses.

The team has already used the technology to create a protective vaccine for Chikungunya virus - spread by the same aedes mosquitoes that spread the Dengue viruses and Zika.

Lab head Associate Professor John Hayball says he is confident his team could adapt the Sementis Chikungunya vaccine for Zika virus before the end of the year.

Assoc Prof Hayball said the Zika virus had caught the world "flat footed".

"It's really a race against the clock to find a vaccine for Zika virus and our lab is starting preclinical laboratory based experiments immediately," he said.

The Experimental Therapeutics Laboratory, together with Sementis, developed a protective vaccine for Chikungunya virus late in 2015, and is finalising a contract for manufacturing clinical-grade material with a full vaccine development process taking many years.

The researchers say their pre-clinical studies have shown the vaccine to be "100% effective".

The vaccine platform allows genetic engineering techniques to be used to insert genes for antigens from different diseases, so Chikungunya genes to make the Chikungunya vaccine, and Zika genes inserted to make the Zika vaccine.

"Now we've basically mastered this process," says Assoc Prof Hayball. We could get up to the stage (with Zika) where we are at with Chikungunya, which is basically generating a viral vaccine candidate that has been through all the pre-clinical testing that is required before we go off to a contract manufacturer by the end of this year."

Assoc Prof Hayball said the system his team had developed allowed it to make new vaccines in "probably a tenth or a hundredth of the time than what was historically taken to do it."

"The system is rapidly deployed, rapidly adaptable, commercial production friendly and ultimately will be economical and we don't need a cold chain for our vaccine, it can quite literally be carried in a backpack.

"I believe that we will be significantly ahead of the game, not only for Zika, but for any other disease that emerges."

While the link between Zika and microcephaly is strongly suspected, it hasn't been proven yet. It is also not currently understood how the virus affects the body, including exactly how it could cause these birth defects. Researchers around the world are now investigating this mechanism, including Sementis and the University of Adelaide's Robinson Institute.

Andrew McConaghie

2 February, 2016