Griffith research institutions join forces to fight Zika virus

Institute for Glycomics and the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery will explore the effects Zika virus has on neurological cells.

Two of Griffith’s prestigious research institutions are joining forces in a cutting edge research collaboration to tackle Zika virus.

Together the Institute for Glycomics and the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery will explore the effects Zika virus has on neurological cells.

Institute for Glycomics principal research leader Professor Suresh Mahalingam is leading the way in Zika research through a number of projects.

He said Eskitis researchers are world leaders in neurological diseases and to be able to combine their expertise with the virology strengths of the Institute for Glycomics could prove ground breaking.

“Utilising both our skill sets could provide the in-roads we need to understand the effect of Zika on brain cells and understand the link with microcephaly,” Professor Mahalingam said.

“Our research skills put us in a very strong position to make major research inroads with this newly emerging and very important virus.

Professor Suresh Mahalingam
Professor Suresh Mahalingam

Professor Mahalingam is a leader in his field having recently been awarded a fellowship with the American Academy of Microbiology, along with his colleague Professor Michael Jennings. More about the Fellowships.

Recently there have been concerns about the spread of Zika virus in Australia after about a dozen cases in Queensland confirmed this year.

Zika virus is a mosquito-borne disease which has been linked to cases of microcephaly and Guillain-Barre Syndrome outbreak. There is currently no vaccine to prevent Zika virus and no specific treatment.

On February 1, 2016 the World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern regarding clusters of microcephaly and other neurological disorders reported in Brazil and potential association with Zika virus.

Professor Mahalingam said he was shifting his research focus to include Zika virus as a priority as there was currently not a lot of research about it available across the world.

His new research will include developing a mouse model of Zika infection, which will be crucial in testing Zika antivirals and vaccines, as well as working on a pregnant mouse model of Zika infection to help support links with microcephaly.

“The most important thing we are hoping to discover is whether Zika infection has links to neurological complications as well as understand what the virus is doing once it enters the body,” he said.

“We are also establishing a multi-institution international collaboration to address these key scientific questions about Zika.”

Institute for Glycomics Director Professor Mark von Itzstein said he is delighted with this joint research initiative and that this collaborative research program into Zika virus has great potential to inform new drug discovery against this deadly virus.

Perry Cross, in wheelchair, with Dr James John from the Eskitis Institute
Perry Cross and Dr James St John at the Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery

Eskitis Institute’s group leader Dr James St John and adjunct research fellow Dr Jenny Ekberg have recently discovered how bacteria can easily penetrate the brain by hijacking the nerves that innervate the nose and they are now excited about the work with Zika virus.

“The nerves within the nose provide a direct route into the brain and while there are defence mechanisms that often stop bacteria and viruses, we have found ways in which some pathogens can avoid detection” said Dr St John.

The research is focussed on finding a preventative therapy and Dr Ekberg said “with our expertise in the defence mechanisms of the nerves we hope to find ways to stimulate the natural immune responses to prevent Zika virus infections”.