Zeroing in on Zika

Fiona Hunter peers into the metallic mesh box where hundreds of mosquitoes buzz back and forth.

She rolls up the sleeve of her white lab coat and puts her arm into an opening on one side of the box – it’s a sleeve designed to allow human arms to enter the trap to feed the blood-thirsty pests.

She watches them with a smile on her face, hoping they’re hungry.

She wants them to bite her. After a few minutes, she’s disappointed when they don’t.

Hunter’s respect for the insects is written all over her face as she talks about her research at Brock University. Her smile only widens when the discussion moves from mosquitoes to her favourite biting bug – the black fly.

Hunter, a Brock professor and medical entomologist, has made studying biting insects her life’s work.

First, she examined black flies in Algonquin Park and how they transmit bird malaria in waterfowl.

Then, when West Nile virus cropped up, the Public Health Agency of Canada asked her to start a mosquito surveillance program that she still runs at Brock.

Today, Hunter is on the cutting-edge of research into the Zika virus and how mosquitoes transmit it. She was part of a global summit in Brazil in March.

Hunter and her work on Zika has been the focus of massive media attention around the world. She has given interviews to everyone from CBC’s The National to Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet along with local publications and international outlets. The interest in Zika is only rivaled by the intense media spotlight on her research during the emergence of West Nile virus.

“We are still working on West Nile. There are many questions yet to be answered about transmission,” she says.

Hunter’s labs at Brock also look at invasive species – catching millions and millions of bugs in a giant H-vac and sifting through them – along with work on Lyme disease, spread by black-legged ticks, and Blue Tongue disease, transmitted by biting midges.

“Different students have different interests and I don’t want everybody having to do the same thing,” she says. “It’s more exciting when we have more things to talk about.”

Hunter hasn’t lost her excitement and fascination with blood-sucking bugs in the 25 years since she was a student working in the lab of her mentor, the late Dr. Klaus Rothfels from the University of Toronto.

He was the person who introduced her to the research possibilities of biting insects. With him, she worked with black flies and, to this day, they hold a special place in her heart.

She was so interested in the work and his approach that she signed on to do a master’s in botany so she could continue working with him. She went on to do a PhD in biology.

Rothfels wasn’t the first teacher to influence Hunter’s career trajectory.

It was in the Grade 4/5 Hamilton classroom of Linda Smith (now Spratt) that Hunter first felt the pull of biology. She loved helping care for the critters kept at the back of the class. She figured out early that she wanted to work with animals and went on to do her undergraduate degree in zoology.

There was only one hitch. Hunter is allergic to most animals.

When I was first doing this work, there weren’t really any diseases of medical or veterinary importance being transmitted in Canada.

Studying black fly chromosomes and investigating how different species were related to one another helped her find her calling.

“You can ask some really incredible questions using insects,” she says.

She grins when she talks about the biting flies she studied for years during trips to Algonquin Park.

“When I was first doing this work, there weren’t really any diseases of medical or veterinary importance that were being transmitted in Canada.”

Her research with black flies was fascinating work that nobody really cared about. And more importantly, it was work there wasn’t much funding for.

Hunter was working at Brock for several years when the West Nile virus emerged. For that, there was funding.

“We’ve really switched over primarily to mosquitoes since then,” she says. “It’s because of the threat to human health and also the funding opportunities. You can’t actually train the next generation of biologists without funding and this way I’m able to support quite a large lab.”

For Hunter, whose parents both taught, teaching is a joy that rivals research.

“I try to be passionate about what I’m teaching and show them how exciting things can be,” she says. “I also try to show them that it’s not necessary to memorize stuff, that memorization and regurgitation is completely useless because so-called facts change over time.”

She says if she still relied on what she learned during her undergrad, she’d be way out of date.

“University is for expanding your horizons and learning how to learn so that going forward you’ll always be able to figure things out,” she says. “You’ll know how to think for yourself and where to find current information.”

Hunter’s grad students – Jason Causarano, Adam Jewiss-Gaines, Bryan Giordano and Darrell Agbulos – are with her on the front-lines of Zika research. They say having her as a mentor has changed the course of their careers.

Causarano says taking Hunter’s medical and veterinary entomology class re-directed his interest from environmental pests including zebra muscles to mosquitoes and biting insects.

“My interest has shifted to public health and insects,”
he says.

Hunter’s teaching style empowered him to pursue his interests in the lab.

Hunter intends to bring in three undergraduate students to work in her lab this summer along with two students from Brazil.

She wants to give as many students as possible the opportunity to explore the options their education affords them.

“Those students who come in with a set career path are doing themselves a disservice,” Hunter says. “If they open up and explore different avenues, they just might find that thing that excites them more than anything else.”

Advanced lab leads the way

The Zika virus has been around for decades but is only now emerging as a public health crisis.

Scientists around the Americas have turned their attention to the virus, which is causing wide-spread fear following an outbreak in Brazil.

Brock University’s CL3 lab, the only one with an insectary at a Canadian university, has been sent two strains of Zika, one from an outbreak in Thailand in 2013 and the other a sample from Puerto Rico’s outbreak in 2016.

Zika has gained notoriety, since moving from Africa and French Polynesia to South America.

In Brazil, the virus has caused a public health emergency and is being linked to an increase in Guillain-Barré syndrome as well as a surge in the number of babies born with microcephaly – an abnormal smallness of the head.

The whole crux is to see whether or not local mosquitoes can become infected and transmit it.

“We will compare the strains to one another in terms of how mosquitoes can transmit them or not,” says Brock professor and medical entomologist Fiona Hunter, of the work taking place in her lab.

“The whole crux is to see whether or not local mosquitoes can become infected and transmit it.”

Hunter travelled to Brazil earlier this year to take part in a one-day conference of experts working to learn more about the virus and its transmission.

Hunter says Zika has been around since 1947 in Africa, but over time has clearly mutated and become a greater risk to human health.

“I teach a medical and veterinary entomology class and I would never have talked about Zika in the past because it was thought to just have mild flu-like symptoms and then people would get better,” she says.

In April, Hunter and her team of grad students infected their first batch of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, the species that is widely believed to be the main vector for Zika in Brazil. Unlike most Ontarians, the researchers were anxiously awaiting the arrival of local mosquitoes so they could introduce the virus into those species to see if they can transmit Zika.

“If you listen to the news, you are going to hear over and over again that we are safe here because we don’t have this one particular mosquito, Aedes aegypti, that is supposed to be the major vector of Zika,” Hunter says. “That’s perfectly true, we don’t have Aedes aegypti but we have 67 other species of mosquito in Ontario and it just seems irresponsible to say that we’re not at risk of local, homegrown transmission, when we don’t know.”

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