Experimental vaccine for chikungunya virus shows great promise

National 01/31/10  gulf-times.com:  An experimental vaccine provided 100 % protection against the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus (believed to be a eventual threat to the Western Hemisphere) in primates and mice, offering hope it will work for humans too, a new study found. There is no known vaccine or treatment for the disease, which has infected millions of people in Africa and Asia and can cause debilitating pain and, in extreme cases, death. Researchers say human trials will start within a year or two, and that the discoveries made could lead to vaccines for diseases stemming from other so-called alphaviruses, such as various deadly strains of equine encephalitis, and the Ross River virus (which is an RNA alphavirus endemic to Australia, Papua New Guinea and other islands in the South Pacific).

The discovery comes at a time when global travel and trade, along with climate change, are expanding the habitats of the mosquitoes that carry these pathogens. Scientists led by Gary Nagel, director of the Vaccine Research Centre at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, identified the proteins that give rise to chikungunya.  “The next step is to figure out how to make it compatible for human use. We are in the process of adapting that to a cell line where it could be made and tested in (preliminary) phase one trials,” Nagel said.  Phase three trials designed to verify efficacy could follow within another two years, he added.

Chikungunya gets its name from a Swahili word meaning “that which bends up”, a reference to arthritis-like symptoms that leave victims stooped. The disease also causes intense headaches and fever.  An outbreak on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion in early 2005 infected a quarter of the population in less than two years, causing some 250 deaths. It is rampant today in India, Thailand and other parts of southeast Asia, Nagel said.  (For more information about Chikungunya Virus, see post dated September 23, 2009.)

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