Seattle’s Infectious Disease Research Institute has received a two-year, nearly $500,000 grant to develop a novel RNA-based Zika virus vaccine to fight the devastating disease.

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With potentially devastating Zika virus spreading in more than 50 countries, including the United States, a Seattle global health firm has received nearly $500,000 to rapidly develop a new type of vaccine to fight it.

Scientists at the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) have been awarded a two-year, $491,000 grant to create an RNA-based vaccine candidate that uses genetic information from the virus itself to kick-start an immune response.

“It’s a way of hijacking the virus’ own machinery to express proteins to make a safe and effective vaccine,” said Dan Stinchcomb, the institute’s senior vice president for vaccine development viral disease programs.

The award, announced recently by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, follows an urgent call by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) earlier this year for research targeting all aspects of the virus now known to cause severe birth defects and neurological problems.

Dozens of firms have launched efforts to develop Zika vaccines, and NIH and vaccine maker Inovio Pharmaceuticals are now conducting clinical trials with their early candidate.

Part of the motivation is protecting public health: A vaccine could halt the once-unknown virus that exploded across Brazil starting last year and quickly spread to other countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and beyond.

In the continental United States, more than 3,800 cases of Zika virus infections have been reported, mostly in travelers. More than 100 cases have been spread by local mosquitoes in Florida, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a dozen cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, which causes muscle weakness and paralysis, have been reported. Washington state has reported 46 Zika infections, all in people who traveled to places where the virus is spreading.

Profit is another motivation. A Zika vaccine for even a portion of U.S. travelers could conservatively generate more than $1 billion a year, Joseph Kim, chief executive for Inovio told the Reuters news agency.

Stinchcomb and senior scientist Neal van Hoeven said the grant will help them jump-start the research.

“Other approaches will beat us to the clinic,” Stinchcomb said. “We have the long-term goal to create a vaccine that’s relatively inexpensive and can last a long time.”

Stinchcomb, who joined the Seattle institute in April, is the former president and chief executive of Inviragen, which was acquired by Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. in 2013 after development of DENVax, a vaccine to prevent dengue virus.

Many traditional vaccines use weakened or inactivated forms of a pathogen or recombinant proteins to trigger an immune-system response. Vaccines based on RNA, or ribonucleic acid — a carrier of genetic information — are different. They use coding sequenced from the viruses to instruct cells to produce protein antigens, which induce an immune reaction.

“We’re trying to make a synthetic RNA that will act just like a virus,” Stinchcomb said.

Such vaccines have several advantages over traditional shots, Stinchcomb said. They are fully synthetic, so they don’t require growth in eggs, cells or bacteria. They’re much faster to produce, and they can activate immune responses quickly.

The two-year span of the grant is enough to get started, van Hoeven and Stinchcomb said. It likely will be at least five years before a viable Zika vaccine is ready for market, they estimated.

This isn’t the only Seattle effort to come up with a way to battle Zika virus. Scientists at the University of Washington and the biotech firm Kineta are working to create a broad-spectrum antiviral drug to treat RNA viruses that include not only Zika but West Nile, Lassa fever and Ebola, among others.