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Florida colleges partner to fight Zika with $10 million grant

Published Dec. 23, 2016

Four Florida universities will collaborate on a $10 million research program to halt the spread of Zika and similar diseases in the United States, thanks to a new grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The University of Florida will lead a five-year data-driven program, joined by the University of South Florida, the University of Miami and Florida International University.

The $10 million grant comes as part of the $184 million in funding the CDC announced Thursday in the push to stop Zika and its effects, such as microcephaly and other birth defects. The Zika Response and Preparedness Appropriations Act of 2016 provided the CDC with $350 million in funding to advance efforts like this one in Florida.

UF researcher Rhoel Dinglasan will lead the Southeast Regional Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Disease and its Gateway Program.

"While everyone is imagining the introduction of diseases like Zika into their states, we don't need to imagine it," Dinglasan said in a UF news release. "We have seen Zika, dengue and chikungunya, and it is our responsibility as scientists to do our part to stop them."

Dinglasan, an associate professor of infectious diseases at UF's Emerging Pathogens Institute, pulled USF, UM and FIU into the research endeavor because of the expertise each school brings.

At FIU, researchers examine the neural genetics of mosquitoes. They're testing a bait that lures females to lay eggs in a trap that kills all the eggs.

Meanwhile, UM has created a sugar bait that attracts and kills mosquitoes, reducing the need to spray. The bait has been tested abroad but never in an urban environment in the United States.

UF brings a "powerhouse" of mathematical modeling, Dinglasan said, which helps researchers test predictions and map out how well different ideas might work.

"That is the linchpin for a data-driven project like this," he said. "Data modeling is the one thing that unites all the research."

And at USF, researchers have focused on the rare but deadly Eastern equine encephalitis, which is transmitted by migrating birds. USF works with mosquito control to target transmission spots and prevent birds from becoming carriers. If researchers can home in on winter transmission sites and interrupt the infection process, they could potentially keep this disease from killing several Americans each year.

"Florida is ground zero for vector-borne diseases," said USF's Thomas Unnasch, distinguished health professor and chair of the Department of Global Health. "Florida has everything. It's an obvious place to really get involved with this and really develop a consortium."

He identified three goals for the center: create a collaborative program among universities that study these diseases; train much-needed medical entomologists; and develop state-of-the-art research in detecting and controlling these infections.

The center will also listen to recommendations from mosquito control programs, whose employees can scope out conditions and report back about the centers' strategies.