Zika Virus Outbreak

Zika Virus Outbreak

Autoimmune Diseases and the Promise of Inverse Vaccines


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Autoimmune diseases and the Concept of Inverse Vaccine

Mains level: Autoimmune diseases, Potential Applications of Inverse Vaccine and

What’s the news?

  • Breakthrough Inverse vaccines offer hope for treating autoimmune diseases.

Central idea

  • In the quest to combat autoimmune diseases, scientists are exploring a groundbreaking approach: inverse vaccines. While still in the developmental stage and yet to be tested on humans, this novel concept holds the potential to revolutionize the treatment of autoimmune diseases.

What are autoimmune diseases?

  • Autoimmune diseases are a group of medical conditions in which the body’s immune system, which is designed to protect against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells and tissues.
  • Normally, the immune system can differentiate between the body’s own cells (self) and foreign substances (non-self), but in autoimmune diseases, this ability is disrupted, leading to immune responses directed against the body’s own tissues.

Key Facts

  • There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases, and they can affect virtually any part of the body, including the skin, joints, muscles, organs, and various systems like the nervous system or endocrine system.
  • The exact cause of autoimmune diseases is often complex and not fully understood, but a combination of genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors is believed to contribute to their development.
  • These diseases can vary in severity and may have periods of remission and flare-ups.
  • Treatment typically involves managing symptoms, suppressing the immune response, and, in some cases, using medications to control inflammation or modulate the immune system.
  • Autoimmune diseases can be chronic and require ongoing medical management.
  • Some common autoimmune diseases include Type 1 Diabetes, Psoriasis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Systemic Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

The Concept of Inverse Vaccine

  • Conventional vaccines work by training the immune system to recognize and combat infectious agents. For instance, COVID-19 vaccines teach the immune system to identify the spike protein of the virus and neutralize it.
  • In contrast, inverse vaccines do the opposite. They prevent the immune system from attacking healthy cells by retraining it to spare them.
  • Inverse vaccines add a do not attack signal to healthy cells.

Table 1: Traditional Vaccines vs Inverse Vaccines

Aspect Traditional Vaccines Inverse Vaccines
Primary Purpose To stimulate the immune system to recognize and fight specific pathogens (e.g., viruses or bacteria) To prevent the immune system from attacking healthy cells and tissues in autoimmune diseases
Components Contain weakened or inactivated pathogens, proteins, or fragments derived from pathogens May contain markers or signals to modify the immune response and prevent attacks on healthy cells
Immune Response Elicits an immune response targeting specific pathogens, leading to the production of antibodies and memory cells Modifies or suppresses the immune response in cases of autoimmune diseases, reducing attacks on healthy tissues
Application Used to prevent infections by training the immune system to recognize and respond to specific threats Investigated for the treatment of autoimmune diseases by retraining the immune system to tolerate healthy cells
Protection Mechanism Provides protection against specific pathogens by building immunity Preserves the body’s healthy cells by preventing autoimmune attacks
Examples Vaccines for diseases like measles, polio, and influenza Experimental vaccines for autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis
Status Widely used and established in preventive medicine Still in experimental stages, undergoing research and development

Potential Applications of Inverse Vaccines

  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS): Inverse vaccines may offer a new approach to managing MS by preventing immune cells from attacking cells in the brain and spinal cord.
  • Type I Diabetes: These vaccines could potentially help protect insulin-producing cells in the pancreas from immune attacks, offering a potential treatment for Type 1 diabetes.
  • Celiac Disease: Early safety trials are underway to test the use of inverse vaccines in celiac disease, a condition associated with gluten intolerance. These vaccines may help individuals respond better to gluten and manage the disease more effectively.
  • Allergic Asthma: Inverse vaccines are under investigation for managing allergic asthma by modifying the immune response to allergens, potentially reducing asthma symptoms.
  • Food Allergies: There is potential for inverse vaccines to improve tolerance to allergenic foods, making it safer for individuals with food allergies to consume these foods.
  • Chronic Inflammatory Diseases: Inverse vaccines may find applications in managing chronic inflammatory conditions like Crohn’s disease, offering a targeted approach to modulating the immune response.
  • Transplantation: Researchers are exploring the potential of inverse vaccines in organ transplantation to reduce the risk of organ rejection. These vaccines may help the recipient’s immune system tolerate the transplanted organ more effectively.

Adaptability to Different Diseases

  • The concept of an inverse vaccine is not new. It was pioneered by Stanford researcher Lawrence Steinman in the early 2000s.
  • Recent research led by Jeffrey Hubbell has opened the door to creating tailored inverse vaccines for various autoimmune diseases.
  • This adaptability allows for precision in addressing specific conditions, enhancing their effectiveness.

Progress and Future Prospects

  • Current Stage: Inverse vaccines are still in the experimental phase and have not yet been tested in human trials, as mentioned in the article.
  • Safety Trials: Early safety trials are underway, including trials related to their use in celiac disease and Phase 1 safety trials for multiple sclerosis (MS).
  • Potential Transformative Impact: Early indications of success, particularly in treating celiac disease, offer hope for transformative treatments.
  • Development in the Field: Researchers anticipate more developments in the field of inverse vaccines in the next five to ten years.
  • Adjustable Vaccines: The researchers are working on creating adjustable inverse vaccines tailored to different autoimmune diseases. This adaptability is expected to enhance their effectiveness.
  • Broader Applications: While the primary focus is on autoimmune diseases, researchers are also exploring potential applications of inverse vaccines in managing food allergies and allergic asthma.


  • Inverse vaccines represent a promising avenue for treating autoimmune diseases without compromising the overall immune response. As research continues, the prospect of bringing inverse vaccines from the lab to the clinic is an exciting possibility on the horizon.

Also read:

Tuberculosis (TB) Should No Longer Exists in the 21st Century: India can lead the way

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Everything you wanted to know about Zika virus

The World Health Organization (WHO) expects that Zika virus, a mosquito-borne disease, spreading through the Americas, to affect between 3 million and 4 million people. Let’s analyse this in brief!

Where was the first Zika virus outbreak identified?

  • Zika virus is an emerging mosquito-borne virus that was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys through a monitoring network of sylvatic yellow fever.
  • It was subsequently identified in humans in 1952 in Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania.
  • Outbreaks of Zika virus disease have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

Trivia : Do you know why is it called Zika Virus?

It was first isolated from Rhesus monkeys in Zika forest near Lake Victoria in Uganda.

Find Out why was Ebola virus named as such?


What makes this outbreak different?

  • The current outbreak, the first ever in the western hemisphere, is a big deal for a number of reasons
  • We now know that it’s not adults who have the most to lose but their unborn babies
  • Microcephaly is a condition where a baby is born with an abnormally small head and brain defects
  • Worldwide it affects only 1 in 30,000 to one in 250,000 newborns
  • In Brazil there are usually a few hundred cases annually at most, but since October 2015, there have been 3,500 new microcephaly cases

But, what is microcephaly?

  • Microcephaly is a rare condition where a baby has an abnormally small head.
  • This is due to abnormal brain development of the baby in the womb or during infancy.
  • Babies and children with microcephaly often have challenges with their brain development as they grow older.
  • Microcephaly can be caused by a variety of environmental and genetic factors such as Downs syndrome; exposure to drugs, alcohol or other toxins in the womb; and rubella infection during pregnancy.

How does the Zika virus spread?

  • Zika virus is transmitted to people through the bite of an infected mosquito from the Aedes genus, mainly Aedes aegypti in tropical regions
  • This is the same mosquito that transmits dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever
  • Zika virus disease outbreaks were reported for the first time from the Pacific in 2007 and 2013 (Yap and French Polynesia, respectively), and in 2015 from the Americas (Brazil and Colombia) and Africa (Cape Verde)

How bad is it now?

  • As of January 23, 2016, the Zika virus has spread to 21 countries and territories of the Americas
  • It’s speculated that the virus must have arrived in Brazil along with the throngs that swept in during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
  • Things look so grim that governments of 4 South American countries are now advising women to not get pregnant until the situation is brought under control
  • The WHO has predicted that the virus is likely to spread all over North and South America, except for Chile and Canada where the Aedes aegypti mosquito is not present
  • The reason that the WHO thinks these countries are so susceptible is that their populations have not been exposed to the virus before and hence have no immunity

Is there a cure?

  • No, there isn’t. There exists medication for symptomatic relief but these are quite useless now that we know about the microcephaly link
  • Research on the Zika virus is still quite primitive
  • Given its generic symptoms in adults, it’s very easy to miss or misdiagnose
  • Moreover, the virus doesn’t seem to show effects in common lab animals like mice and rats. Getting monkeys is extremely tough because of restrictions on primate research
  • Vaccine development and antiviral drug discovery efforts are on but this takes time, and with the Zika virus, we’ll be starting from scratch

Does Brazil have a way out?

  • Brazil needs an immediate plan of action for more than one reason
  • Rio de Janeiro is frantically spraying insecticides at the parade grounds where the annual carnival celebrations will commence soon
  • In August, the city is due to host the Olympics

What about India?

  • India is one of the Aedes aegyptis’s many homes but the Zika virus itself has not ever been detected in our country so far
  • However, in a study in the 1950s, healthy individuals from 6 Indian states showed passive immunity to the virus
  • This means that though their blood contained antibodies against the virus, this was not because they were exposed to the virus
  • Usually passive immunity is acquired through vaccines, from mother-to-child transmissions or breast milk
  • In the case of India, where the Zika virus is not known to exist, the antibodies probably arose from exposure to similar viruses
  • Nevertheless, theoretically, Zika can spread anywhere that the mosquito exists
  • That means India, too. Indians are just as susceptible if they travel to high-risk countries


Is there something more that you wanted to know which we did not answer yet? Drop in with your questions.


Published with inputs from Arun | Image - Outbreaknews
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