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Medicine & Science
A Visit with UTMB's Pei-Yong Shi
by Lora-Marie Bernard
Monday, June 13, 2016

A University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston research team has cloned the Zika virus to help them find a vaccine to fight it.

Pei-Yong Shi, who works on the team, recently spoke to Guidry News about the new development in the mosquito-borne disease. The latest results of the man-made virus are available in the publication, Cell Host and Microbe.

“We genetically-engineered the Zika virus, which represents one of the most powerful virology tools to study the virus,” Shi said.  “And that will answer and unravel a lot of mechanisms of how and why the virus, you know, becomes explosive, in terms of the epidemiology and disease causing.”  Listen (16:03)

Scientists will study the DNA copy of the virus in the test tube and the petri dish, he said.

“You can really manipulate the genetic fingerprint at will,” he said.

The Zika virus has been in existence for 70 years, Shi said.  It remained obscure with few identified cases in people. Those who were infected had mild symptoms.

“For the first 60 years after its discovery, it really didn’t  cause too many diseases,” he noted. 

That changed in 2007 when the virus sparked frequent epidemics associated with serious diseases. Among them were microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome.  “It also causes millions of infections in, for example, Brazil,”  Shi said.

He went on to explain that scientists became interested in understanding the surge and developed hypothesis to explain it.  The cloned virus will help them test hypotheses.

“For example, the virus may have changed in the past 10 years. That change may cause an increased ability of the virus to be transmitted by mosquitoes. If the virus has changed and that change increases its efficiency in mosquito transmission, then there will be more spread.”

The clone also allows scientists to study the virus's old fingerprint, he said. Then, they can test to see if the old virus was “less transmissible” than the new one.

"Basically using this system we can make a panel of viruses at our will and recapitulate the history of the virus,” he said. “You can make viruses to represent (a timeline).  You can make 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980. You can make an evolution.”

Shi said scientists will also use the clone to study the virus's ability to penetrate the placenta. Since they will be able to test the regions of the man-made virus, they can try to isolate the area that could be giving Zika the ability to enter a pregnant woman’s womb. 

Despite the virus’s strength, calling Zika a “super virus” is a relative term, he said.

“I think the virus just keeps evolving in a different ecosystem and we just have to cope with it,” he added.

Shi has been at UTMB for seven months as part of the Zika initiative. He has been a researcher for several commercial pharmaceutical companies. In New York, he organized the community response team for the West Nile virus.

He was also part of a team that developed a clone of the West Nile virus.  He said that experience will dovetail into his work at UTMB.

“I feel confident that if there is anything we can contribute very rapidly, this is one of them,” he said, referring to the team’s cloning project.




Remembering Jim Guidry GRCC Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership


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