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How An Electric Shock Could One Day Protect You From Zika

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in a lab in Recife, Brazil.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in a lab in Recife, Brazil.

This summer, it's not just athletes who are looking to set world records. Scientists are also trying to break a record — for how quickly they can make a vaccine for a new virus.

It's for Zika. And one team is leading the pack.

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The biotech company Inovio just got the first approval from the Food and Drug Administration to test an experimental vaccine in people. They've already shown the virus protects monkeys from Zika, says the company's president, Joseph Kim. And a small study begins in people in a few weeks.

"We'll be testing 40 people at three locations on the East Coast," he says. From that study, they'll be able to see if the vaccine is safe. If so, they'll start a larger a trial in South America or the Caribbean by the end of the year, Kim says.

In many ways, Inovio has done what seemed impossible a few years ago: They've created a promising vaccine in just a few months. And they're not the only ones to do it.

Today researchers at Harvard Medical School report in the journal Nature two experimental vaccines that completely protect mice from Zika.

"The protection was shocking," says Dr. Dan Barouch, who led the study. Usually the Zika virus replicates to high levels in these mice, he says. But when they gave the animals the vaccines, they couldn't detect any virus.

One reason scientists have created these experimental vaccines so quickly is they're using a relatively new technology. It's called DNA vaccines.

"It is really the vaccine trend of the future," says Dr. Anthony Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

Traditional vaccines — like for the flu or measles — contain whole viruses. They're crippled or inactivated. But to make the shots, you have to grow up batches of live virus. That can be dangerous and usually requires special permits.

By comparison, a DNA vaccine contains just a tiny piece of a virus's genetic code. It's harmless and easy to work with.

"So it's a simpler, more efficient and ultimately a safer approach," Fauci says.

So far, no DNA vaccines have made it through clinical trials and been approved by the FDA. But in recent years, the vaccines have improved quite a bit, both Kim and Fauci say.

In particular, researchers had to develop a new way of delivering the vaccine. For these vaccines to work, they have to get inside cells — which is much harder for a piece of DNA than a whole virus.

In one delivery system, Fauci says, there's a device that that actually shoots the DNA vaccine in through the skin without necessarily using a needle. "It's kind of like a jet stream that puts the virus the vaccine right through the skin into the tissue," he says.

Inovio has made another system, Kim says. It actually gives the person a low voltage electrical shock to coax the vaccine into cells. "That happens very quickly, like in millisecond or a hundredth of a second," he says, "so the pain level is similar to that of a regular needle."

Researchers at NIH are also working on a DNA vaccine for Zika, Fauci says. They hope to begin clinical trails in a few months.

That means at least four Zika vaccines are showing promise. And with a little luck, one of these could make it through approval sometime in early 2018, Fauci says.

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Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.