Students from Brazil researching Zika at Brock

Liz Barroso was infected with Zika virus while studying to be a doctor in Brazil. Today, she is researching Zika along with a team at Brock University headed by medical entomologist Fiona Hunter.

“I had the Zika disease like many people I know,” Barroso said. “For me, it is very meaningful to be here to help to contribute to understanding the virus.”

The fourth-year exchange student with Brazil’s Science Without Borders program said a Zika outbreak swept the area near her hometown of Salvador in spring 2015.

She contracted Zika in May 2015 from a mosquito bite, which caused a three-day fever followed by swollen lymph nodes and a bad rash.

“Because I’m in med school it was easy to go to a professor and get help. I was medicated,” she said.

Barroso came to Brock last year and will continue her studies here until the end of October.

Fellow Brazilian student Lucas Lessa was also at Brock as part of Science Without Borders until returning home last month.

The second-year medical student said Zika, which has caused a widespread public health emergency in Brazil, also hit his hometown of Recife. In Brazil, the virus is being linked to an increase in Guillain-Barre syndrome as well as a surge in the number of babies born with microcephaly – an abnormal smallness of the head.

Brock is on the cutting-edge of research into how the virus is transmitted and what types of mosquitoes can be vectors for Zika.

“It’s a big opportunity to do our research and understand more about the virus and how it is spread around the world,” Lessa said.

Lucas Lessa and Liz Barroso

Exchange students from Brazil Lucas Lessa and Liz Barroso have worked on Zika research in Fiona Hunter’s lab at Brock University. Both students come from regions of Brazil hard hit by Zika outbreaks.

Barroso and Lessa decided to apply to work with Hunter after seeing a Brock University Facebook post about the Zika research happening in the CL3 lab.

Brock’s CL3 lab with an insectary is the only one of its kind in a Canadian university. Hunter and her team of graduate students are working with two strains of the Zika virus, one from an outbreak in Thailand in 2013 and the other a sample from Puerto Rico’s outbreak in 2016. They are catching local mosquitoes to determine whether they can be vectors to transmit the virus. This summer, they have ruled out half a dozen species of mosquitoes as vectors. They are also working with colony mosquitoes to test transmission capabilities.

Barroso and Lessa held a number of roles in and out of the lab, from collecting mosquitoes in Niagara using CDC light traps, to testing mosquito cells in the lab.

Hunter said she’s pleased Barroso is staying on until November, noting her current work could lead to a breakthrough.

“She has been spearheading a research project looking at how to slow down Zika virus replication in cell culture and I feel as though she is on the verge of discovering something really important,” Hunter said, noting it’s too early to discuss the details.

Barroso and Lessa said the work they are part of at Brock will help them when they go home to Brazil, in understanding the virus from the perspective of researchers.

“In this lab, they are studying the vectors of Zika and characteristics of the virus. It’s important for us to know about these things because we will deal with patients in the future,” Barroso said.

Lessa said Zika is not a new virus, but it is new to Brazil and that poses a lot of questions for researchers and public health experts.

The students, who Hunter described as hard working and extremely conscientious, have impressed the professor.

“They are always willing to learn new things about the biology of mosquitoes, about cell culture assays, and about mosquito transmission studies,” she said. “In my experience, Canadian students who aspire to be medical doctors are often interested only in the human aspect of diseases. Liz and Lucas – who are both already in med school – were genuinely interested in learning about the mosquito-virus interactions. This was really refreshing for me.”

Lessa said his time at Brock deepened his understanding of vector-borne illness and the important lab research that needs to take place in the effort to help control and avoid outbreaks.

Hunter said since Lessa returned home to Brazil, has stayed in touch and recently updated them about Zika research by a group from his hometown of Recife. She said the group has found that Culex quinquefasciatus (the southern house mosquito) can transmit Zika virus whereas another research group in Rio de Janeiro has found that the very same species cannot transmit Zika.

“Lucas translated the entire newspaper article into English for us – which we really appreciated,” she said. “It shows that he is deeply invested in the research that he did here.”

Barroso and Lessa said Hunter, along with the graduate students working in the labs, really added to the experience of being at Brock and learning the ropes when it comes to research.

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