Revolutionary Robot Targets Zika Virus Cure

Revolutionary new medical research equipment at Flinders has achieved in two days what was previously deemed ‘impossible’ to achieve manually.

A collaboration between researchers from Flinders University and the University of Adelaide has used a new game-changing robot to mass-screen almost 3000 drugs to find potential treatments to help protect millions of unborn babies around the world from the presently incurable Zika Virus.

Flinders University researcher and Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer’s Cell Screen SA (CeSSA) Laboratory Manager Dr Amanda Aloia says it’s a task which would have previously taken months to achieve - if at all - without the state-of-the-art robotic equipment.

“Without the equipment in this facility, this work would be extremely difficult,” Dr Aloia says.

“You’d have to spend months of your life staring down a microscope and it’s unlikely you would ever get results as precise as those produced by using the robotics.”

Together with an advanced imaging-system, the lab’s robot – nicknamed ‘Bing’ – helped screen and photograph the effects of 2900 drugs and other compounds on Zika infected liver cells in just two days.

All drugs involved in the screening are already approved for human use, which is hoped will speed up clinical testing should potential treatments be identified.

“There’s a variety of drugs we have tested, including those commonly used to treat cancers, and skin conditions, even anti-histamines, and some quite obscure ones too,” Dr Aloia says.

“We’ve already seen effects of some drugs in blocking Zika infection so our next steps will be to more closely analyse those compounds and carry out more detailed testing.

“Within the next year we should have a really good idea of which drugs look to be the most promising.”

Zika virus infection during pregnancy is a cause of congenital brain abnormalities including microcephaly (growth restriction of the brain and head), and can be a trigger of Guillain-Barré syndrome. Links between the mosquito-borne Zika and a range of neurological disorders are also under investigation.

Project-lead, University of Adelaide Research Centre for Infectious Diseases researcher, Dr Nicholas Eyre, says no treatment or vaccine is presently available for Zika.

“There’s still an urgent need across the world for drugs that are effective, safe and affordable which could limit infection and limit the neurological defects in unborn babies,” Dr Eyre says.

“We’re taking advantage of Flinders’ new CeSSA facility to screen a library of drugs, and combining it with our viral disease expertise, to see if we can identify particular anti-viral drugs which could block Zika.

“We’d like to think this research is going to have a big impact as there’s huge potential to limit the severity of outcomes in babies.”

Use of the CeSSA robot is in high demand, with drug screening already in the pipelines for a range of other diseases, including several types of cancer.

This research is proudly supported by Flinders Foundation and the Channel 7 Children’s Research Fund.

This story also appeared in Southern Health News


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