The Zika Virus – Could the answer lie within engineering innovation?

A mosquito on human skin.

4 March 2016


The recent outbreak of Zika Virus, originating in Central and South America, has inevitably prompted fears of another Ebola-style epidemic. Following the news that Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, has declared that the outbreak constitutes a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern”, it is clear that an effective treatment must be found.

Dr Robert Langer, 2015 winner of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, believes that engineering could help to provide this solution. Dr Langer’s prize-winning work in controlled release large molecule drug delivery has already helped millions, if not billions of people, throughout the world. If this ground-breaking technology is adapted and innovated in the correct way, could it be used in the fight against Zika? Dr Langer certainly thinks so.

Drug delivery is the process which allows drugs to be dispersed at a specific rate in the body. It can take many forms, including pills, injections and implants. Controlled release drug delivery means that the same dose can be administered over a long period of time. This technology has proved to be invaluable, particularly in remote areas where medical assistance can be difficult to access, such as parts of South America currently affected more seriously by Zika.

Dr Langer, alongside Dr Giovanni Traverso, has recently submitted a paper proposing short, medium and long-term solutions to tackling the outbreak, each of which contains a strong engineering element. One of the short-term proposals in the paper is an innovative anti-mosquito device known as a photonic fence. This technology contains sensors that are able to identify discriminating characteristics of a mosquito, such as wing beat frequency, shape, size, airspeed etc. Once the software establishes that the insect is a valid target, it tracks the mosquito in flight, runs a safety check to ensure no innocent bystanders are in view, and then activates a laser to zap the mosquito. Engineering could play a key role in the development of this system, and implementing it in areas badly affected by Zika will help to combat the virus without endangering humans or other animals.

The medium-term solution revolves around a drug called Ivermectin. Ivermectin is toxic to Aedes Mosquitos – which are known to be the primary carriers of Zika – should they bite a human who has taken it. Through the innovations achieved within controlled release drug delivery, it is now possible for Ivermectin to be taken orally and reside in the stomach for several days and potentially weeks at a time. If this were to be administered widely in areas of high exposure, it has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of disease-carrying mosquitos, reducing the risk of human exposure to Zika.

Dr Langer and Dr Traverso acknowledge that the development of a vaccine for the Zika virus is ultimately needed in order to eradicate the disease, but they also believe that this is most likely to be achieved through a multidisciplinary collaboration ranging from engineering to virology to infectious disease.

Engineering has already shown that it has a valuable role to play in combatting Zika. Whether it be through the development of software, sensors and lasers, or advances in the methods in which we administer medicine, innovation is at the heart of the response to this health epidemic, and there are not many who do innovation better than engineers.

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