Two year grant given for chikungunya virus vaccine testing

Navin Varadarajan, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston, has received a two year, $361,000 grant to study a new method of vaccine testing for the chikungunya virus.

The grant, administered by the Western Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research and funded by the National Institutes of Health, will partner Varadarajan with researchers at Tulane University and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Over two million people have contracted the chikungunya virus in the past five years, with most infections occurring in Southeast Asia. The virus is spread by mosquitoes to humans and causes severe arthritic symptoms that make some victims unable to walk. There is no vaccine available for the virus.

"What we are looking to study and characterize is a vaccine-induced immunity," Varadarajan said. "If I have a tube of blood from a vaccinated subject, how do we determine the effectiveness of the vaccine?"

Varadarajan is testing the ability of potential vaccines to allow the immune system to attack human cells that have been taken over by the virus and become enters for virus multiplication. This spurs the immune system to create CD8 T-cells geared toward chikungunya-infected cells that kill the co-opted cells.

Since isolating and studying CD8 T-cells can be extremely challenging, Varadarajan is developing a specialized polymer slide called a microwell array to isolate and study individual cells.

"If we shrink the container small enough so that its dimensions are similar to those of a single cell, we can achieve almost single-cell resolution,” Varadarajan said. “So within the same footprint, we can look at lots of cells."

Once Varadarjan has isolated the CD8 T-cells that are fighting chikungunya, he will clone them by the million so that he can study every aspect of the cells. This will help him to evaluate the effectiveness of potential vaccines.

"Finding a chikungunya vaccine is a priority given the virus' potential to spread quickly and its possible use in bioterrorism," Varadarajan said. "With this research, we can help the vaccine developers identify which potential vaccines are most effective and, hopefully, find a suitable one as quickly as possible."

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