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Entomologist Awarded $200,000 to Help Develop Rapid Zika Detection Tests

A University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences entomologist will use a $200,000 grant from the Florida Department of Health to improve tests for the detection of the Zika virus.

In 2016, Florida saw 1,272 cases of Zika, which is usually associated with mild symptoms, although severe symptoms may also occur, including Guillain-Barré syndrome and birth defects in babies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 256 were locally acquired. So far this year, four more cases have been reported, all travel-related.

Barry Alto, a UF/IFAS assistant professor of medical entomology, said scientists need better diagnostic tools to detect Zika virus to meet challenges to public health. He is working with collaborator Steven Benner at Firebird Biomolecular Sciences LLC to develop methods they hope should take about an hour – far less time than current testing methods. Existing methods require specialized equipment and highly trained personnel, so samples must be transported to specialized laboratory facilities to perform the tests.

Alto will work with Benner, a former UF chemistry distinguished professor and founder of Gainesville-based Firebird Biomolecular Sciences LLC. Together, they plan to develop an inexpensive, user-friendly and rapid diagnostic Zika test.

“The project has the potential to impact the health of Floridians,” said Alto, a faculty member at the UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, Florida. “It can improve surveillance by advanced warning of Zika transmission through tests of mosquito samples, allow for strategic deployment of limited resources by mosquito control to reduce incidence and prevalence of Zika and improve health care to Floridians by rapid diagnosis in human samples.”

Alto and Benner will combine current Zika-detection techniques with innovations in synthetic biology. Those include AEGIS (artificially expanded genetic information system), which allows pathogen nucleic acid-targeted tests to be ultra clean, and SAMRS (self-avoiding molecular recognition systems) that allow ease of multiplexing of pathogen nucleic acid-targeted test so other arboviruses can be detected in addition to Zika virus.

During the one-year project, scientists will travel to Florida’s public health service labs to demonstrate the technique and to test their method to detect Zika and other arboviruses.

“We are interested in getting feedback from individuals involved in mosquito control and public health,” Alto said.

Zika can be transmitted when a female mosquito, most likely an infected Aedes aegypti, bites a human. The virus can cause birth defects, including microcephaly, or a smaller-than-normal head, in babies as well as Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition in which the immune system attacks your nervous system. Currently there is no vaccine available for Zika virus.

To try to avoid mosquito bites, UF/IFAS Extension faculty urge people to stay indoors or wear long-sleeve shirts and pants if they’re outdoors, especially during the day, when mosquitoes that might transmit the Zika virus are more likely to bite. They also urge people to apply mosquito repellent containing DEET and remove mosquito-breeding habitats by removing water from containers because that’s where mosquitoes lay their eggs and the immature stages develop.

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