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Hard Science

Scientists Find a Protein That Blocks Zika Replication

It may not impact our treatments, but it takes us one step closer to truly understanding the disease.

Adeel ShaffiJune 7th 2016

Recently, reports came out regarding new information about Zika. But to be clear, a cure has not been found, and there is no guarantee that that this new research will allow us to stop the disease; however, such research is important, as it scientifically confirms what we believe to be true about the disease. Yet, as is always the case, virology and drug research is terribly complicated, and while information is constantly being added (and though this information is important), breakthrough cures are very rare.

So what’s up with the latest research? And what does it really signify?

Making a Connection

At the beginning of 2015, the world was rocked by the sudden outbreak of the Zika virus. Despite it’s slow and steady spread to almost 52 countries worldwide, not much was known about the Zika virus—but newly published papers are helping us confirm expectations and better understand the disease.

Researchers have been able to shed some light onto the mysterious virus, which in turn could someday help us find a means to combat it—developing one facet of a multi-pronged attack on the epidemic. According to the team, the new information comes from within us.

Abraham Brass and his team of researchers from the University of Texas Medical Center were able to see the connection between Zika and microcephaly, a neurological disease that causes the abnormally small development of the brains and skulls of newborn babies. Aside from microcephaly, the team also connected the biological mechanisms of Zika with other diseases such as influenza and dengue.

Comparisons between Zika and similar viral infections revealed patterns about the presence of the naturally-occurring interferon-induced protein 3 (IFITM3) in an infected person’s body. Earlier studies indicated that those populations with a certain genetic variant of the IFITM3 gene were more susceptible to developing severe influenza. On the other hand, heightened levels of IFITM3 were found to be capable of toughening cellular membranes, making it much harder for a virus to infect it.

So it was quickly understood that there was an important link between this protein and viral infections.

Credit: Brass Lab
The left image shows the rapid proliferation of the Zika virus when exposed to human cells; at right we see that the virus was inhibited by the introduction of the IFITM3 protein. Credit: Brass Lab

Quarantining The Virus

Now, the new research indicates that the IFITM3 protein acts against the Zika virus. George Savidis, a member of Brass’ research team, says, “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.”

Though the results of the study have been promising, researchers have stated that their tests were conducted only on mice and cells extracted from humans which were cultured in laboratories. It remains to test these studies on actual human subjects.

Nevertheless, researchers are hopeful about the study’s findings. “Given our recent results with Zika virus, it’s now even more important that we work to find out how IFITM3 is blocking these viruses, and use that knowledge to prevent and treat infections,” says Brass.

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