New AgriLife Research scientists take aim at Zika

By Steve Byrns, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

The Texas A&M AgriLife Research Zika team is headed by Dr. Kevin Myles, left, and Dr. Zach Adelman. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Rob Williams)

The Texas A&M AgriLife Research Zika team is headed by Dr. Kevin Myles, left, and Dr. Zach Adelman. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Rob Williams)

COLLEGE STATION – Today’s news is flooded with reports on Zika; none of them good…until now.

Texas A&M AgriLife Research has fielded a Zika team led by two scientists who joined the department of entomology at Texas A&M University on Aug. 1, said Dr. David Ragsdale, department head at College Station.

Dr. Zach Adelman and Dr. Kevin Myles were previously at Virginia Tech and now join the ranks of a number of AgriLife Research personnel whose priority has become stopping Zika, he said.

“Dr. Adelman and Dr. Myles are longtime collaborators who have joined us here in College Station. Both men have earned world-renowned reputations for their work on viruses.

“Dr. Myles is working to understand the basic biology of how these viruses replicate in mosquitoes, while one of Dr. Adelman’s projects involves creating mosquitoes that are resistant to viruses such as Zika.”

The pair’s work will take mosquito management where it has never been before, Ragsdale said.

“They will address the mosquito and disease relationship in ways not previously considered,” he said. “Like all discovery science at the very edges of what we know, the outcomes are uncertain, but the potential for development of technologies that revolutionize mosquito and disease management is very real.”

Adelman said one of his primary goals is to develop new genetic technologies to help suppress or eliminate Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquito populations locally, nationally and beyond.

“As vectors of dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya and now Zika, it is clear that as long as these mosquitoes are allowed to persist in close proximity to humans, the litany of viruses will only continue to grow, and with it the burden on public health,” he said.

Myles said mosquito-borne diseases continue to cause unacceptable levels of  loss in humans and domesticated animals and that globalization is increasingly blurring the traditional boundaries of these diseases.

“West Nile virus, first introduced in a 1999 outbreak in New York City, is now prevalent throughout the U.S.,” Myles said. “A more recent example is the emergence of Zika virus in Micronesia and the South Pacific with subsequent spread to the Americas.

“Pathogens like these are transmitted to humans when the virus is able to overcome the immune defenses of a mosquito vector. Thus, a primary focus of my laboratory is on understanding this process, with the goal of using this information to develop new genetic control strategies and novel vaccines.”

Intense media attention has made Zika a household word to many Texans. The mosquito-transmitted Zika virus is a serious threat to the health of unborn babies. Women infected by the virus while pregnant are known to have babies with microcephaly, a condition where the fetal brain and head do not fully develop and reach normal size.

A. aegypti and A. albopictus, the mosquitoes capable of transmitting Zika, occur commonly in residential areas where they use even small amounts of standing water to reproduce, Ragsdale said. Aedes mosquitoes infected with Zika are hard to detect, so health officials will have to rely on actual human cases to identify hot spots once the virus arrives in native mosquito populations.

“We’re now seeing media reports of confirmed Zika cases stemming from homegrown mosquitoes in Florida,” he said. “There have been a number of cases reported in Texas, but those were related to foreign travel, so confirmation of Zika in native mosquito populations is a concern our scientists are urgently seeking to thwart.”

Ragsdale noted that as of this writing, there have been no known cases of Zika stemming from native mosquito populations in Texas.

“This is an insidious virus because people can have it and never know it,” Ragsdale said.

He said some travelers to Zika-infested countries are unknowingly coming home infected with the virus. When Aedes mosquitoes bite infected people, the insects acquire the virus. The mosquito then bites another person, transmitting the virus to that previously uninfected person.

“As it stands now, the best defense is to keep from getting bitten by mosquitoes both here and abroad, although that’s a pretty tall order for most outdoor-loving Texans.

“Soon though, it is our hope the energy and knowledge these two researchers bring to our top team of AgriLife Research entomologists will result in scientific breakthroughs in ridding the country of the Zika virus and quite possibly other mosquito-borne diseases as well.”

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