US-based Heat Biologics has signed an agreement with the University of Miami for the licence and development of a portfolio of patents leveraging the company’s gp96 platform to target the Zika virus.

Heat Biologics’ wholly owned subsidiary Zolovax will focus on the development of gp96-based vaccines targeting Zika, and other infectious diseases such as HIV, West Nile, dengue and yellow fever.

The Zika programme will be developed at the University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine under the direction of reproductive immunologist Natasa Strbo.

Clinical and preclinical studies suggest that the gp96 platform may have a role as a broad-based infectious disease vaccine.

"Current approaches against Zika have not been shown to protect the placenta or transmission of Zika to the foetus."

More than 200 cancer patients have been treated using the gp96-based therapeutic vaccines.

Dr Strbo said: “Current approaches against Zika have not been shown to protect the placenta or transmission of Zika to the foetus.

“In NIH-funded studies, a gp96-based vaccine effectively protected primates from acquiring the SIV virus and induced T-cells to infiltrate cancer tumours after human vaccination.

“This led us to hypothesise that a gp96 vaccine might stimulate a similar virus-specific response in the placenta of Zika-infected women that could clear the virus and protect the foetus. We are currently pursuing this approach in our preclinical studies.”

Based on research carried out by Dr Strbo and her team, it was found that the gp96-based vaccine for SIV (the primate equivalent of HIV) induces a dramatic antigen-specific immune response in the mucous membranes.

The treated animals were 73% less likely to get a particularly virulent form of the SIV virus.

The data supports wide use of the vaccine in other diseases that attack the mucous membranes and barrier organs, such as the placenta in Zika infection.

This placenta is believed to play a vital role in the transmission of the virus from mother to foetus in the case of Zika.

Heat believes that the mucosal immune response generated by the gp96 platform in ongoing studies supports the development of a gp96 vaccine that could also stimulate an immune response in the placenta that is Zika specific, as well as protect the foetus from virus transmission.