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Experimental Vaccine Protects Monkeys Against Mosquito-Borne Chikungunya Virus

Imagine a mosquito-borne virus that has already infected millions of people in recent outbreaks in South and Southeast Asia, the islands of the Indian Ocean, Africa and northern Italy. Although seldom fatal, it causes highly painful arthritis-like symptoms that can linger for months or even years. It's capable of adapting to spread through a mosquito species common in much of North America. And no vaccine or treatment exists to protect humans from its effects.

The scenario may sound like something dreamed up as a training exercise by public health authorities, but the virus is all too real. Called chikungunya, from an East African tribal word describing the contorted postures of its pain-wracked victims, the pathogen has been the focus of intense scientific interest ever since a 2006 outbreak on the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean infected about 266,000 people, killing 260 of them.

Now, researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, Purdue University and Bioqual Inc. have developed an experimental vaccine for chikungunya virus and successfully tested it in monkeys. Described in a paper appearing in the March issue of Nature Medicine, the vaccine is composed of noninfectious "virus-like particles." Although coated with the same proteins that enable chikungunya to pass through cell membranes, the vaccine particles lack the proteins that chikungunya uses to replicate inside cells. They look like chikungunya to the immune systems of rhesus macaques, however, which respond to exposure by generating antibodies that defend the monkeys from infection by the real virus.
 
 

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