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Anti-Zika Project Earns USAID Grant

Nina Welding • DATE: August 11, 2016

Molly Duman Scheel, associate professor of medical and molecular genetics at Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend (IUSM-SB), has received a grant from the USAID agency to pursue a solution to the Zika outbreak described as “game changing.”

Scheel’s award is one of 21 announced today (Wednesday, Aug. 10) as part of the USAID’s $30 million program “Combating Zika and Future Threats: A Grand Challenge for Development.” Some 900 researchers and institutions applied for the funding. Upcoming discussions will determine the size of Scheel’s grant.

Scheel and a team of researchers from IUSM-SB and the University of Notre Dame are developing an insecticide that destroys Aedes aegypti larvae before the mosquitos are able to take flight and transmit disease. Larvicides, as the insecticides are called, are a common approach to battling mosquito-borne illnesses.  

The Scheel lab has developed a novel class of larvicides called Yeast Interfering RNA Larvicides that, in the laboratory setting, kill nearly 100 percent of larvae. The USAID grant will allow the team to conduct a field evaluation of the new technique at a Notre Dame affiliated center in Belize. Solutions that introduce new insecticides and larvicides are essential to the Zika battle as the current larvicide repertoire faces challenges to sustainability. Mosquitos have developed resistance to them, and there is rising concern that current products negatively affect other organisms.

The Scheel laboratory’s work to develop interfering RNA technology for targeting vector mosquitoes has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The use of yeast for interfering RNA delivery is attractive from both a mosquito control and a commercial standpoint, according to Scheel. Yeast has been cultivated worldwide throughout history, so the technology could be adapted to resource limited countries with constrained infrastructure.

Scheel, who is an associate adjunct professor at Notre Dame, and members of her research team, including Keshava Mysore, Limb Haparai, and Kathy Eggleson, will work with their colleagues in the Notre Dame Eck Institute for Global Health (EIGH), including her long-time collaborator from the Notre Dame College of Science Dave Severson and Na Wei, a yeast genetics expert who is helping to develop the technology.  John Grieco and Nicole Achee, EIGH members who manage the Belize Vector and Ecology Center, have a 20-year relationship working on vector borne disease issues in collaboration with the Ministry of Health (MoH) in Belize. They will work in conjunction with Scheel and the Belize MoH to test the larvicides in the field.

In this challenge program, USAID representatives said they sought  “potentially game changing solutions that cut across vector control, personal and household protection, vector and disease surveillance, diagnostics, and community engagement.”

Scheel is a 2016 recipient of IU Trailblazer Award bestowed annually on researcher whose work shows international promise. Also in 2016, she was named an IUSM Showalter Fellow for outstanding research contributions.

— Originally published by Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend, August 10, 2016