By GREGORY ZELLER //
A Stony Brook startup that digitally recreates viruses in order to reprogram their genomes is preparing to take on the Zika virus, which World Health Organization officials said Thursday is “spreading explosively” through the Americas.
Codagenix, a 2012 startup cofounded by Farmingdale State College biology professor J. Robert Coleman and former Stony Brook University assistant research professor Steffen Mueller, is keeping a close eye on the migration of the virus, which has prompted an emergency WHO meeting set for next week.
The biotech company uses a proprietary software platform to “re-code” viruses and has created what Coleman called “a pipeline of viral and bacterial vaccine candidates.” Up next is Zika, which was discovered in the 1940s along the equatorial belt between Africa and Asia.
The virus – which is related to dengue, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and West Nile virus – has spread eastward rapidly over the last few years, first to French Polynesia and eventually the Caribbean, then in Central and South America.
It causes an illness variously known as Zika virus, Zika fever and Zika disease. Symptoms are usually mild – they mimic a form of dengue fever, with rest as the best prescription – though researchers have long explored links between Zika and microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that deviates the size and shape of the head in newborn babies of infected mothers.
Microcephaly cases in Brazil have jumped an alarming 7 percent as the virus has reached pandemic levels in South America, according to the WHO, which is considering the drastic measure of declaring a public health emergency.
No vaccine currently exists – but that could soon change with Codagenix on the case.
Coleman said his startup, which is in the process of relocating from SBU’s Long Island High Technology Incubator to Farmingdale State College’s Broad Hollow Bioscience Park, will begin work on the virus as soon as it completes its move.
That’s a little more involved than you’d think, since it includes relocating the lion’s share of its research capabilities into 1,500 square feet of wet-lab space in the bioscience park.
“It takes time to organize the incubators and freezers,” Coleman said. “It’s a little more complicated than packing up your house.”
But not so complicated that Codagenix will fall off schedule. The company has formalized its Broad Hollow lease and will be moved in by February, and is still on-schedule to begin human trials of its intranasal influenza vaccine in the fourth quarter of this year.
It will now add Zika research to its workload and, potentially, to that growing pipeline of ready-for-testing vaccines. While the disease doesn’t currently appear threatening to the bulk of the lower 48, recent cases have been diagnosed in New York, including a patient from Nassau County.
Still, all it takes to spread a virus to a new population is a mosquito and an “immune-naïve population,” Coleman noted. And the mosquitoes known to carry Zika, he added, live in the U.S. regions closest to the infection zone – places like the Florida Keys and Southern Texas, where serious outbreaks of exotic mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue fever have occurred in recent years.
“Wherever that mosquito exists, that’s where the virus can spread,” Coleman said. “And just because it’s not a threat to Chicago doesn’t mean it’s not a threat – 2 billion to 3 billion people live in the area where this is endemic.”
So focusing Codagenix’s patented anti-viral technologies on Zika, he added, has “become very important.”
“I don’t have a timetable as to when we’ll have data,” Coleman said. “But we’ve begun our work.”