The development process in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s James Crowe, M.D., and his team works like this: With a few ounces of blood from a previously infected person, researchers find chikungunya antibody- secreting cells, and then those cells are processed to retrieve their DNA and antibody genes. Crowe said that his team started about two years ago acquiring blood from people who had chikungunya as children and has isolated 3 dozen chikungunya antibodies so far. Amazingly even decades after an infection, people still have cells in their blood making antibodies for chikungunya.

He added that using antibodies for treatment, and the body’s natural immune defense, may be more effective than trying to develop a synthetic drug, which typically has a high rate of failure. Crowe said that joint pain from chikungunya can be “disabling, like chronic arthritis.” The name ‘chikungunya’ derives from a word in the Kimakonde language, meaning “to become contorted” and describes the stooped appearance of sufferers with joint pain.

Once the drug is developed and tested in humans, Crowe said it would be given to infected people early in the infection, prior to the debilitating joint pain. A vaccine that induces long-term protection could be more convenient and cost-effective in the long run than giving shots of the antibody to try to prevent infection, he said. The chikungunya virus, which is transmitted by two types of Aedes mosquitoes, was first identified in Africa 50 years ago, and has been mostly in Asia and occasionally southern Europe.

India had suffered an outbreak in 2006, where more than 1 500 000 cases of chikungunya were reported with Ae. aegypti implicated as the vector. Today there have been almost 1.2 million cases in 44 countries or territories.

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