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Friday, April 9th, 2021

UTMB researchers discover how Zika virus causes microcephaly

A research team at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston recently discovered the mechanisms that the Zika virus uses to change the brain’s development.

A report was published in a recent issue of Stem Cell Reports.

Zika virus is typically spread through the bite of Aedes species mosquito and is known to cause mild symptoms in adults such as fever, joint pain and rashes. The virus has also been linked to severe fetal malformations in pregnant women, resulting in microcephaly and other serious birth defects. There are currently two known lineages of the virus, African and Asian.

For the study, the researchers used stem cells obtained from three donated fetal brains. They then examined the impact the Asian lineage ZIka virus that was involved in the initial outbreak in North America.

“We discovered that the Asian lineage Zika virus halted the proliferation of brain stem cells and hindered their ability to develop into brain nerve cells,” Ping Wu, senior author of the study and UTMB professor, said. “However, the effect that the Zika virus had on the ability of stem cells to develop into specialized cells differed between donors. This difference seems to be linked with a Zika-induced change in global gene expression pattern, it remains to be seen which genes are responsible.”

Wu said that the unique system containing stem cells from the three donated tissue samples allowed the researchers to dissect molecular mechanisms underlying Zika virus induced brain malformations.

Nikos Vasilakis, UTMB professor and co-senior author of the study, said that the research team discovered Zika infection was mainly found in glial cells, which provide insulation for the brain.

According to the World Health Organization, 70 countries and territories are reporting active Zika transmission.