Watch out, Zika. Florida International University is coming for you.
The university announced Friday that the school has been awarded $3.4 million in state and federal funding to research the mosquito-borne virus through projects that will seek to halt or reduce the transmission and impact of Zika.
Last week, Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed an $84 billion budget recommending new funding for the health department to hire more scientists and conduct more research to combat the spread of the virus. Officials say Zika is likely to remain in South Florida as long as the region continues to host travelers from areas where the virus is endemic. The virus is associated with birth defects in newborns, including microcephaly, a condition characterized by an abnormally small head and calcification deposits on the brain.
“Many FIU researchers are working on Zika-related projects that have the potential to help the South Florida and global communities,” said FIU Vice President for Research and Economic Development Andres Gil.
The Florida Department of Health gave the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine nearly $2 million to study how the virus breaches the blood brain barrier (BBB) in order to invade and kill neurons and other brain cells, according to the project’s lead, Nazira El-Hage.
“We hope to find out how the virus gets into the brain, the mechanism by which it enters the cells, and then what kinds of therapies can be effective in eradicating it,” El-Hage said.
The team will also look at a possible way of delivering an experimental drug, Beclin1, to kill the virus, FIU said.
FIU’s Biomolecular Sciences Institute received about $1.2 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of a new multi-university center dedicated to stopping the spread of Zika and other mosquito-borne illnesses.
The institute also received $200,000 from the Florida health department to expand research on mosquito genetics. The effort will include trying to develop new bait that could lure female mosquitoes to lay eggs in a trap that then kills all the eggs, helping to reduce mosquito populations.
The team is also developing a workshop to train future mosquito biologists and mosquito-control specialists.
“The collaboration and statewide approach to fighting Zika in Florida is the best sign of hope that we can beat this,” said Matthew DeGennaro, a biologist who is leading the projects. “The academic world is trying to respond to this crisis, and by working together along with mosquito control and others, we can find effective solutions that will stop these cycles of disease.”