Local UW researchers working on combating Zika virus

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SEATTLE - Researchers at the University of Washington could help lead the way in the fight against Zika.

The virus, which is known to cause birth defects in newborns, continues to spread in South and Central American countries.

Zika research is happening at a Seattle building in South Lake Union, and one of the researchers working on this project was recently awarded a grant to continue his work on the virus.

“We are at the very early stages of a pandemic,” said Dr. Michael Gale, a professor of Immunology at the University of Washington.

Working under Dr. Gale is Dr. Justin Roby, a post-doctorate researcher from Australia, who is in Seattle to help stop the Zika virus from spreading around the globe.

“If we can understand the disease quite a bit better, hopefully we can then develop more targeted therapeutics,” Roby said.

Roby is trying to figure out how the virus blocks immune cells in the body, and, more importantly, how it spreads from a pregnant mom to her fetus.

“Fundamentally what I was doing at first is looking at signally processes that essentially warn cells that they’re being attacked by virus and being infected,” added Roby.

A team of 8 is working under Professor Gale to understand the Zika virus and the birth defects it’s linked to.

In the last six weeks, that research has become a bigger priority.

“Zika was on our radar," Gale said. "Of course we were busy with a lot of other stuff, and then it reared its head a little earlier than expected, so we’re on it."

A $20,000 dollar grant from Perkins Coie will allow Dr. Roby to study how the virus works.

“It’s certainly very important. A lot of the work we do is very expensive and we use quite elaborate techniques, quite expensive processes, so every little bit of funding helps,” Roby said.

All of this work is being done at a lab that already studies viruses spread by mosquitoes.

“We’re the only ones working on it in the Northwest for sure," Gale said. "There are several centers across the country and we happen to be one of them. We collaborate very closely with these other centers."

Zika is now one of the top priorities at this UW lab.

“Zika is going to be, very soon, a huge problem all through North America as things progress, so the research effort needed is gigantic,” Gale said.

Currently the mosquito carrying the Zika virus is only found in warmer climates, like Central and South America, but many researchers believe that will quickly change.

”With global warming, this mosquito that’s restricted to the south,  may well move to the north as well and spread further throughout the United States,” said Roby.

In February, President Obama asked congress for $1.9 billion to combat the spread of the virus. The hope is that all the research will eventually lead to a vaccine or treatment.