Chikungunya is a viral disease spread by mosquitoes which causes fever and severe joint pain – the name derives from a verb meaning ‘to become contorted’ and describes the appearance of sufferers bent with pain. Chikungunya is an alphavirus of the family Togaviridae and is usually spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. In 2005-2006, however, a point mutation in one of the viral envelope genes facilitated transmission by Aedes albopictus (tiger mosquito), increasing the risk of outbreaks in areas where the Asian tiger mosquito is present. In the coming years, expansion of the ranges of mosquitoes and changes in insect vectors could increase the spread of Chikungunya virus and other arboviruses.
There is no cure for Chikungunya and treatment is focussed on relieving symptoms. There is also no commercially available vaccine but researchers in the US have now developed an experimental vaccine using non-infectious virus-like particles (VLPs). Selective expression of viral structural proteins produced VLPs that resemble replication-competent alphaviruses and immunization with these VLPs led to neutralizing antibodies against envelope proteins from alternative Chikungunya strains. Rhesus macaques produced high-titre neutralizing antibodies that protected against viremia after high-dose challenge. When the monkey antibodies were transferred into immunodeficient mice, they protected against subsequent lethal viral challenge, indicating a humoral mechanism of protection. VLPs could potentially be developed to offer protection from other alphaviruses such as O’nyong’nyong virus, Ross River virus and Barmah Forest virus. Virus-like particle based-vaccines against human papillomavirus and hepatitis B virus have already been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.