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University of Alberta gets funding for Zika virus research

Team will collaborate with South American and Caribbean researchers.

Members of Tom Hobman's University of Alberta research team studying the Zika virus.


Members of Tom Hobman's University of Alberta research team studying the Zika virus.

A University of Alberta research team is at the forefront of the fight against the Zika virus.

The U of A announced Thursday that cell biology professor Tom Hobman is one of three Canadian scientists to get $500,000 Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant over three years to investigate the mosquito-borne virus.

“One of the main problems we are facing is the prolonged persistence of the virus in the brain of developing babies, and also in the testes in the case of men,” said Anil Kumar Ansalem, who is a member of Hobman’s team.

“So what we are trying to understand is basically how the virus is able to overcome the antiviral response within humans, and how they are able to really manage to persist for very long and cause damage.”

Zika’s ability to stay in the body for months differentiates it from other mosquito-borne viruses like Dengue and West Nile, which typically last one or two weeks.

Hobman’s team is developing diagnostic tools and antiviral therapies that can be used against Zika, and will be collaborating with researchers on the front lines in South America and the Caribbean.

This is the second time Hobman’s team has received funding for Zika research – last July, they were awarded one million dollars over five years for related studies.

Ansalem said they’ve already made strong progress on understanding the cell types that support the virus.

“Some of the cell types we identified are very important for brain development in the babies and also, for example, development of sperm within the testes,” he said.

The current outbreak of Zika virus began in 2014 in South America and has since spread to the Gulf Coast of the U.S.

In pregnant women it can lead to microcephaly, a sometimes fatal congenital condition associated with incomplete brain development in newborns.

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