The dreaded Zika virus could soon have an effective antivirus. Scientists have successfully located the key protein that effectively blocks viral replication of the virus and even prevents cell death, which is a common occurrence due to the infection.
Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) working on finding out ways to combat the Zika virus have made a remarkable breakthrough that should pave the way for a synthetic antivirus, which will limit the virus’ spread in the affected person. Researchers have been able to figure out what the Zika virus does to the human body. Moreover, the findings make it clear why the effects of a Zika virus infection are so devastating.
For a long time, despite the aftermath of a Zika virus infection being very bad, the detection of an infection could take months before the patient showed any adverse physical effects. Now, the scientists have been able to discover the virus’ actual functioning. The recently conducted study shows that the cunningly deceptive Zika virus has a multi-step approach of attack, one of which effectively hides the infection.
Essentially, the virus heads straight to the brain’s progenitor cells, blocking around 20 percent of them from forming new neurons. However, the virus has a way to do so very stealthily. The virus possesses the ability to continue replicating within the brain without alerting the body’s immune system.
Besides figuring out how the Zika virus works, scientists were also able to discover a protein that has shown to reduce Zika’s ability to infect brain cells in both humans and mice. Additionally, the protein, called interferon-induced protein 3 (IFITM3), can even prevent the cell die-off associated with the virus, reported Science Daily. Incidentally, the tiny protein is produced naturally within our bodies and works in defending our bodies against the virus, noted Abraham Ross, who is part of the research team.
“This work represents the first look at how our cells defend themselves against Zika virus’ attack. Our results show that Zika virus has a weakness that we could potentially exploit to prevent or stop infection.”
The scientists zeroed in on the IFITM3 after working with the dengue virus and other such pathogens that are closely related to Zika, reported NDTV. After experimenting with the protein, researchers realized it could reliably block the replication of the Zika virus in healthy cells. After confirming the results, scientists artificially boosted the levels of the protein within both mouse and human cells. As expected, the protein altered the cell membrane, making it a lot tougher for the virus to break through, reported News Medical. In other words, cells with lower amounts of IFITM3 protein were not just easily broken through by the virus, but became the breeding ground, noted another member, George Savidis.
“In effect, we see that IFITM3 allows our cells to swallow up and quarantine the virus thereby stopping their own infection, and also the infection of neighboring cells. We think this also reduces the levels of cell death caused by Zika virus. IFITM3 pretty much keeps Zika virus stuck in no man’s land, where it can’t do anything to harm us.”
Ever since the first confirmed reports of Zika virus about 12 months ago, its spread has slow but persistent. Although there aren’t millions of Zika virus patients out there, according to official sources, the virus has now hit the shores of 52 countries, including Brazil, Cuba, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. Even developed countries like the U.S., U.K., and Australia have all reported Zika virus infection in returning travelers.
The threat of Zika has become graver because scientists have found the biological mechanism that connects Zika to microcephaly, a rare and devastating neurological disorder that causes newborns to develop abnormally small skulls and brains. The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed in April that Zika virus is responsible for the high number of babies born with birth defects in the countries where the virus has an active presence.
Interestingly, besides arresting the spread of Zika virus, the IFITM3 protein has also shown promise in blocking emerging viruses such as dengue and Ebola. However, the lack of a reliable method to boost the production of the protein within the body means, at present, there is no treatment, cure, or prevention for Zika.
[Photo by Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg/Getty Images]