Drug maker GlaxoSmithKline said Thursday that it will collaborate with the National Institutes of Health to evaluate a new vaccine technology to protect against Zika virus.

GSK said it has concluded feasibility assessments and is preparing research studies with the NIH.

The technology, known as SAM (self-amplifying mRNA), is designed to produce an immune response but does not use a live or killed virus, as do many conventional vaccines.

The GSK vaccine delivers nucleic acid to the cytoplasm of a cell, where it can "self-amplify" - and reproduce thousands of times.

That means it could potentially be used at low doses. Initial preclinical testing of self-amplifying mRNA vaccines has produced potent and robust immune responses in small animals and nonhuman primates, the company said.

"The idea of using genetic information, DNA or RNA, for vaccines has been around since the 1990s," said Rip Ballou, head of Glaxo's U.S. vaccine research and development center in Rockville, Md.

"What's changed for this technology has been figuring out the self-amplifying part of it, so that you can use potentially much lower doses," Ballou said. "On the manufacturing side, this has potential big impact because you can get many more doses for the buck that you put into manufacturing."

The NIH is prepared to test the vaccine in animals right away, Ballou said. "We will get some initial reads on this in the next several months," he said. "I think within six months we should be able to say something."

If the studies go well, GSK plans to transition the technology to "clinical proof of concept" and potential testing in people.

"Figuring out how to get the RNA into the cell without being degraded, and at a high efficiency, has been key to making this possible," Ballou said. "That's the work the company has done over the last four or five years. We think this is a very powerful technology."

Currently, no licensed vaccines that use DNA or RNA technology are on the market, he said.

U.K-based GlaxoSmithKline employs about 5,000 in the Philadelphia area. The company has commercial operations, primarily for vaccines and pharmaceuticals, at the Navy Yard and has research and development sites in Upper Merion and in Upper Providence, Montgomery County.

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