The Partnership for Public Service recently named NIAID scientists Barney S. Graham, M.D., Ph.D., and Theodore C. Pierson, Ph.D., as Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists for their work in developing a candidate vaccine against Zika virus. The annual awards, also known as “The Sammies,” honor federal employees who have made exceptional contributions to the public good. Dr. Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center and chief of the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory and Translational Science Core, and Dr. Pierson, chief of the Laboratory of Viral Diseases, are among four finalists in the “Promising Innovations” category.
In 2015, Brazil reported an outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease Zika, which commonly causes mild symptoms such as fever, rash, headache and joint pain in adults. At the same time, health officials began to see neurological issues in babies associated with a history of Zika infection and reported an unusual uptick in the number of babies with microcephaly—a birth defect characterized by a smaller-than-average head and improper brain growth.
In late 2015, following the early reports that Zika infection in pregnancy could lead to birth defects, Dr. Graham, an immunologist and virologist, and Dr. Pierson, a flavivirus expert, and their teams, began discussing plans for developing a Zika vaccine. By early 2016, the virus had spread across the Americas, prompting the WHO to declare a public health emergency. In a process that usually takes years, Drs. Graham and Pierson developed a candidate DNA vaccine against Zika in months by adapting a vaccine platform they had used previously for a related flavivirus, West Nile virus.
The investigational Zika vaccine contains a small circular piece of DNA called a plasmid. Scientists inserted genes into the plasmid that encode two proteins found on the surface of the Zika virus. Once injected into muscle, the encoded proteins assemble into particles that mimic the shape of Zika virus and trigger the body’s immune system to respond.
After evaluating the vaccine in animal models, NIAID began testing the vaccine in healthy adults in Phase 1 clinical trials in August 2016. After initial results indicated that the vaccine was safe and induced an immune response in trial participants, NIAID launched a multi-site Phase 2/2b trial in the U.S., Central and South America in March 2017. The ongoing trial aims to determine if the vaccine can effectively prevent disease caused by Zika infection while further evaluating the vaccine’s safety and immunogenicity.
Drs. Graham and Pierson are among 27 Sammies finalists selected from more than 300 nominations this year. A committee featuring leaders from government, media, academia and the private sector will announce medal recipients in each category at a gala in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 2, 2018.