UCF Gets $1.3 million to Fight Zika

University of Central Florida scientists, including three Department of Chemistry faculty members, received a total of nearly $1.3 million in state funds Wednesday to research the Zika virus with the goal of understanding its effects on human health and developing a vaccine for the mosquito-borne illness.

The funding was part of Gov. Rick Scott’s authorization of $25 million in state funds to develop better testing and prevention for the mosquito-borne virus that authorities say has infected almost 5,000 people in the U.S. and more than 1,000 in Florida. The governor announced 24 grants across Florida.

People infected with Zika can suffer from common flu symptoms, but pregnant women are at particular risk for devastating birth defects from the virus. The spread of the disease prompted Gov. Scott to declare a health emergency in parts of South Florida last year.

The College of Sciences faculty who were awarded grants include Assistant Professors of chemistry Yulia Gerasimova, Ph.D., and Karin Chumbimuni-Torres, Ph.D., and Qun Huo, Ph.D., an associate professor with joint appointments in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center and Department of Chemistry.

Each professor received around $200,000 to assist them in developing a tool that can detect the Zika virus with high specificity, which, according to Chumbimuni-Torres, is a technique that is not currently available.

Huo is seeking to develop a new point-of-care diagnostic test for Zika infection detection.

Point-of-care testing, or testing conducted at the time and place of patient care, can be very effective when dealing with the Zika virus since only patients who show signs of the symptoms or who are pregnant and meet the epidemiological criteria can be routinely tested for Zika infection.

With more than 4,500 cases of Zika viruses in the U.S. since Nov. 30, 2016, including 969 cases in Fla., the research conducted by the UCF professors is crucial in detecting the virus before it spreads.

“Even patients who may not know that they have been infected can still spread the infections, thus contributing to the development of outbreaks and increased health care,” said Gerasimova. “Routine screening of the population in Zika-affected areas using a rapid and simple diagnostic method can help to control the spread of infection.”

Additionally, UCF College of Medicine researchers Griffith Parks, Ph.D., and Bradley Jay Willenberg, Ph.D., received a grant of $500,000 to determine how Zika fends off the body’s innate immune response and how the mosquito’s saliva might act to block the body’s ability to stop the infection. Click here to learn more about how the researchers are fighting the epidemic.

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