Vivek Nerurkar in his laboratory

The Hawaiʻi State Board of Agriculture approved the University of Hawaiʻi’s application to import live Zika virus so research into finding a vaccine can get under way at the John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM).

The birth of two infants on Oʻahu in December 2015 to mothers infected with the Zika virus illustrated how little is understood about Zika, and sparked a sense of urgency among those who want to study and combat the virus. Of the two babies born in Honolulu—one born to a woman who was infected in American Samoa and the other to a woman infected in Brazil—only one infant had microcephaly, a condition that stunts the growth of the head, leaving inadequate room for the brain to fully develop and causing impairment to the child.

“What causes the virus in the mothers to cripple one baby and not the other?” asked Vivek Nerurkar, chair of the JABSOM Department of Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology. “That is one of the mysteries we need to solve.”

Nerurkar and colleagues have applied for several grants through the National Institutes of Health and other agencies to begin their research in earnest. He expects to obtain the Zika virus sample within the next month or so. The sample will be kept in a highly secure laboratory and researchers will follow strictly enforced methods to ensure its safety as well as their own.

“We have a large department here at the Tropical Medicine, Medical Microbiology and Pharmacology, with a lot scientists and physicians who we work with in the community and at the Kapiʻolani Medical Center,” said Nerurkar. “Together we form a very good team and we have in-depth expertise of working with infectious diseases. I think this is a tremendous asset for the State of Hawaiʻi. Our faculty, experts in virology and vaccines, also have a proven track record of collaboration with other institutions on the U.S. mainland. I believe strongly in collaborations and in hoping that these collaborations will lead to new vaccines.”

Read the news release.

—By Tina Shelton