Though it has been around for years, the public has just started to gain awareness of Zika because it is spreading rapidly. When the virus traveled from isolated islands to South America, it started to cause many issues. It is normally almost harmless in adults, but it can cause severe brain damage in infants or immunocompromised people. New research offers some hope for people who have been infected with the virus.
Researchers Find Way to Reduce Likelihood of Brain Damage
Zika has become one of the most concerning diseases in modern times because it can sometimes cause a truly shocking symptom. Women can be infected with Zika without ever having symptoms, but if they become pregnant in the next few months, their infants can be born with microcephaly, a condition that results in severely malformed and shrunken brains.
The most common ways Zika spreads are the following: sexual intercourse, mosquito bites, and blood transfusions. It’s very easy for pregnant women to come into contact with this virus. Unfortunately, there is no way to treat a child that is born with microcephaly. New research provides some hope for pregnant women who have gotten the Zika virus.
A team of researchers at the Aix-Marseille University of France has found a way to potentially block Zika from interfering with a fetus’ brain development. This new information was just published in the January edition of the Cell Reports journal. It finally reveals the precise mechanism that Zika uses to damage developing brains.
It was already known that Zika causes microcephaly by entering individual brain cells. Once it is in the cells, the Zika virus prevents the brain cells from generating new neurons, and if this happens while a fetus is developing, then the fetus can be born without a complete brain. Until the new research was published, scientists were not certain how Zika was actually managing to get into the cells in the first place.
The disease brought on by the virus is harmless if the immune system can promptly respond and fight against the it. The Symptoms one would experience should not surmount those of a simple flu. Still, it turns out that the virus uses a protein response to stop the immune system from defeating it. Zika uses the AXL protein to circumvent the immune system and deposit the virus into host cells. The research showed that the virus is using AXL proteins as an entry point into developing brains.
The findings of the study may be used to develop a method of preventing pregnant women from giving birth to children with microcephaly. It is now necessary to find a treatment method that can safely block AXL protein expression, but this may prove difficult. Lead researcher, Professor Xavier de Lamballerie, cautions that it might be hard to safely block Zika from using AXL proteins without harming other essential bodily mechanisms.
This incredibly useful information was discovered because the EU donated 30 million euros to scientific research as part of their effort to stop the devastating impact of the virus. Not only does it show that pregnant women with Zika may still be able to give birth to healthy infants, but it also shows that increased research funding can be an effective way of dealing with world health crises.
The Next Steps for Zika Researchers
The new understanding about how this horrible virus damages the brain may help doctors to treat pregnant women and prevent them from giving birth to children with microcephaly. It can be used to develop new medications and treatments eventually. Though researchers are excited by the potential of this discovery, they are still mostly focused on reducing the disease’s spread. Avoiding infection in the first place will prevent women from needing innovative Zika cures.