Researchers Make Breakthrough In Zika Virus-Related Birth Defects

An outbreak of Zika virus has been spanning continents, including the U.S., and new evidence now links how it might be causing birth defects in newborn babies.

Researchers at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and researchers at Florida State University have gone public about new developments in research linking birth defects to Zika virus.

Zika Virus was first detected in humans in Africa in the 1940’s, where it gained its name from. Until now, there hasn’t been much research available on the virus and its effects on humans.

According to Science Magazine, researchers have identified Zika virus in the amniotic fluid of pregnant women whose fetuses were diagnosed with microcephaly and also in the brain tissue of a fetus diagnosed with the disorder. But because researchers had conducted scant research on Zika virus before this year, they had little data to suggest how the virus could cause such damage.

The Verge reports that strong evidence suggests the mosquito-borne Zika virus is causing infants to be born with birth defects — and a lab model provides clues on how it happens. The virus is capable of infecting the cells that form the brain’s outer layer, making them more susceptible to death and preventing them from forming new tissue. Though this study took place in a lab dish, rather than on a human person, it may explain how Zika stunts brain development.

The findings report that within three days of exposure to the Zika virus, up to 90 percent of the brain’s outer layer cells were infected. The findings were published in Cell Stem Cell. The research took place in a lab, where the stem cells were made to mimic the types of cells that eventually form the cortex — the brain’s outer layer. Exposure to the Zika virus not only led to massive cell death, but the Zika-infected cells were reconditioned to replicate the virus. The study authors argue that these experiments could eventually help doctors find new drugs to stop the virus’ damage on unborn babies.

Zika has been linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome as well, a rare neurological condition leading to muscle weakness, permanent or temporary paralysis and in some cases death. A study published February in Lancet journal found a direct link in Zika virus patients studied from an outbreak in French Polynesia in 2013—correlating to increases in Guillain-Barre syndrome, with all reported patients testing positive for Zika as well. “This is the first study providing evidence for Zika virus infection causing Guillain-Barré syndrome,” wrote the authors. “Because Zika virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas, at risk countries need to prepare for adequate intensive care beds capacity to manage patients with Guillain-Barré syndrome.”

The research doesn’t confirm that Zika virus is causing birth defects, but it did give researchers a look at how the virus interacts with individual brain cells. It will take looking at how Zika affects the entire brain to confirm the theory behind microcephaly.

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Lab Tests in Texas for the Zika Virus
[Photo by LM Otero/AP Images]

“It’s significant because we’re literally the first people in the world to know this, to know that this virus can infect these very important cells and interfere with their function,” Professor Hengli Tang of Florida State University said. “Research is rewarding in general, but when you have something this timely and this clinically relevant, it’s extra satisfying because we’ll be helping people in the long run.”

Their hope is that their findings could lead to identifying pharmaceuticals that can treat Zika Virus at onset.

Read more about Zika Virus here

[Photo by Andre Penner/AP Images]