Framingham, MA – August 18, 2017. Kephera diagnostics announced today that it has been awarded a two-year, $598,136 SBIR grant by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an agency of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to develop a new test for Zika virus infection.
Zika virus exploded in an epidemic in 2015-2016 that is estimated to have infected over 750,000 people, and has been linked to a range of conditions including microcephaly in newborn infants and Guillain-Barré and other serious neurological disorders. The virus is typically transmitted by Aedes mosquitoes, which also transmit Dengue virus and a variety of other related and unrelated viruses. To determine whether individuals including pregnant women at risk for these conditions have been exposed to Zika virus requires the detection of antibodies in a blood sample, as the period during which viral nucleic acids can be found in the blood is extremely brief. However, distinguishing Zika from other viruses in the same flavivirus family has posed a significant diagnostic challenge due to the extensive cross-reactivity between viral antigens. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that much of the population at risk for Zika is already seropositive for Dengue virus based on prior exposure.
“The award of this SBIR grant is an important event for Kephera Diagnostics, and validates our approach to the diagnostic challenge posed by the Zika epidemic” said Dr. Andrew Levin, Chief Executive Officer and Principal Investigator under the grant. “While existing tests are adequate to detect acute infections, there is still no means to accurately identify post-viremic individuals at risk for the most severe consequences of Zika infection. We aim to change this picture through development of a test capable of distinguishing Zika from other related or relevant viruses”.
Under the grant, Kephera will carry out a systematic analysis of antigenic epitopes corresponding to Zika and Dengue virus genes in an effort to identify epitopes specific for each virus, which will then be used to develop the test. The project will involve collaboration with researchers at Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco, a leading center in the field of bloodborne infectious diseases that is studying blood donors carrying Zika virus.