Planting the Seeds for Zika Research in the Dominican Republic

Planting Seeds for Zika Research

The Dominican Republic has been at the center of the Zika virus epidemic. According to the Miami Herald, visitors to the Caribbean nation accounted for more than one-fifth of the confirmed cases in the U.S. as of last July. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its most recent travel alert related to the Zika virus in the Dominican Republic – a signal that the spread of the disease continues.

As residents and visitors in Zika-affected countries try to avoid contracting the disease, scientists and researchers aggressively work to combat Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases. One of the newest combatants in the battle is the Institute of Tropical Medicine and Global Health (IMTSAG) at the Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Researchers at the newly opened IMTSAG are relying on equipment delivered by Massachusetts nonprofit Seeding Labs to accomplish their mission to improve public health.

Through grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and donations from academic partners and U.S.-based corporations, like Thermo Fisher Scientific, Seeding Labs’ Instrumental Access program equips scientists in developing nations with instruments that many scientists might otherwise take for granted. These tools can accelerate important scientific work that ultimately saves lives. Thermo Fisher lab equipment at the site included portable and benchtop pH meters, a centrifuge, a freezer and other equipment to kick-start IMTSAG’s research efforts.

“One of the most important aspects of receiving this equipment is that it will provide local researchers with the laboratory infrastructure needed to study our country’s most pressing health problems,” said Dr. Aída Mencía-Ripley, dean of research at UNIBE.

IMTSAG is currently applying for additional funding to research new and re-emerging diseases, with an ambitious plan for addressing local health issues under the institute’s director, Dr. Robert Paulino. Since standing water is prevalent across many tropical climate countries like the Dominican Republic, it is prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. Specifically, Dr. Paulino said, meters can test water quality parameters like pH, dissolved oxygen and even turbidity, elements that may facilitate the creation of breeding sites for mosquitoes, and therefore the expansion of emerging diseases like Zika, Chikungunya, and Dengue. Resulting data can help identify ways to stop the breeding cycle of mosquitos, which are hosts of viruses like Zika and that, in turn, can control the spread of the virus.

Additionally, UNIBE’s school of dentistry will use pH meters for saliva studies, evaluating the role of the microbiota (a collection of microorganisms that reside in a particular environment) in oral disease.

“This equipment allows us to conduct research independently of other institutions,” he said. “We couldn’t study issues of local concern because equipment wasn’t available. Now we can offer more advanced training programs and have an even bigger impact in our region.”

Roberta Morris, vice president and general manager, water and lab products, for Thermo Fisher added, “Empowering scientific research locally is a way to enable the people closer to the issues. They have passion for their work as it helps their families, friends and country solve challenges they are facing.”

IMTSAG hosted a grand-opening ceremony in February that included representatives from USAID and international agencies, Seeding Labs, and industry, as well as the Dominican Republic’s Minister of Health Altagracia Guzmán. Attendees toured the institute’s molecular biology and virology labs as well as its entomology and human pathology units.

“Like many Seeding Labs recipients, the scientists at UNIBE and IMTSAG are committed to making the world healthier and safer,” said Morris. “Seeding Labs unleashes the potential of scientists and researchers around the world, bringing technology to them that would otherwise be financially out of reach. I’m pleased that Thermo Fisher and Seeding Labs are continuing our partnership to advance scientific discovery.”