In the search for a better diagnostic and potential treatment for the Zika virus, Thomas Rogers, MD, PhD, a second-year fellow in BWH’s Division of Infectious Disease, finds himself flying back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast. On one coast is the Ragon Institute at MGH, MIT and Harvard, an institute known for its cutting-edge research on viruses and vaccines, where Rogers works in the lab of Bruce Walker, MD. On the other coast is The Scripps Research Institute, home to advanced technologies for carrying out rapid, high-throughput experiments. Through a collaboration with leading investigators at both institutions, Rogers hopes to quickly zero in on antibodies from patients who have recovered from Zika to identify a better way to definitively diagnose the virus in other patients and create a pharmaceutical drug to treat those who have been recently infected, especially pregnant women.
Rogers, who splits his time between the lab and the clinic where he sees patients, thinks that the blood of previously infected patients may hold the key to better treatment of suspected Zika cases. When patients recover from an infection, white blood cells known as B cells store a “memory” of the infection by binding to a tiny piece of the virus, which they can then present to other immune cells to mount an immune response against a virus, should it ever attack the body again. This is why people who have previously been exposed to the Zika virus and other viruses may become immune to those strains.
Rogers and his colleagues hypothesize that if they can identify the right component from the right B cells, they may be able find antibodies that are highly specific to the Zika virus. Current diagnostic tests for Zika cannot distinguish between infection with Zika virus with Dengue virus—another mosquito-borne virus that is endemic to Puerto Rico, Latin America and other locales. Being able to definitively diagnose Zika with a more specific antibody test could help clinicians diagnose patients and help epidemiologists more accurately track Zika’s spread.
In addition, antibodies could be a powerful tool in treating those who have been recently infected, helping their immune systems recognize and fight the virus. This is why Rogers was examining B cells before the outbreak of Zika. Until the end of 2015, Rogers and his colleagues in the Walker lab were studying B cells for the treatment and prevention of HIV. When he first heard about the Zika outbreak in Brazil, Rogers realized that the technique he’d been working on might have the potential to help combat this emerging epidemic. Given the urgency of the outbreak and its public health implications, Rogers rapidly pivoted his focus from HIV to Zika. Over the next several months, he and his colleagues amassed samples shared by the Colombian government from individuals who had been identified as positive for Zika. Rogers is now working tirelessly to purify B cells from those samples, identify B cells specific to Zika, isolate antibody DNA, create that antibody, test against Zika and repeat. With access to the resources at Scripps, he can screen thousands of cells simultaneously.
“This collaboration gives us the resources we need in order to carry out these experiments rapidly,” said Rogers, noting that, in the midst of the Zika outbreak, time is of the essence. “It’s so important that we have the ability to treat individuals exposed to the Zika virus before any outcomes that could affect fetal development or maturation surface. That’s where our focus is: on finding a way to use antibodies to not only diagnose but also treat people who have recently been infected.”