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Medicine & Science
UTMB research progresses in fighting Zika-related birth defects
by Lora-Marie Bernard
Monday, March 27, 2017

UTMB Wu Vasilakis researchTwo University of Texas Medical Branch researchers have uncovered a mechanism in a Zika virus lineage that could help unravel how it causes microcephaly.

Guidry News recently visited with Ping Wu, senior author on the study and UTMB professor in the Department of Neuroscience & Cell Biology and Nikos Vasilakis, UTMB associate professor in the Department of Pathology.

The two led a multidisciplinary team that discovered a particular lineage that seems to be associated with birth defects.  Their findings are detailed in Stem Cell Reports.

Vasilakis said the multidisciplinary approach of the research helped the team find the new information. The different perspectives were able to build existing knowledge of the Zika epidemic and the birth defects the virus caused, he said. Listen (16:19)

“So it was a great opportunity for us, leveraging the many years of those expertise of Dr. Wu,” he said.

Dr.Wu said that studies done by teams outside UTMB did not include the relationship between Zika and the way it impacts brain nerve cells. This gave the UTMB study a fresh perspective.

UTMB researchers Wu and Vasilakis The team learned that of the three lines they studied, one caused a deficit of brain nerve cells.

Vasilakis said that this revelation could help researchers unravel how Zika seems to randomly create birth defects.  

“Not every pregnant woman that gets infected with Zika will deliver a baby with neurological or congenital abnormalities,” he said. “The rate now is between 1 to 10 women per 100 infected will have some babies with abnormalities and that level of abnormality is an extreme spectrum.”

Damage from a Zika infection can range from newborns with no brains whatsoever to abnormal brains, to babies with fully-developed brains who exhibit minor defects, such as speech or communication problems, he said. The cause of this wide range has been a stumbling block for researchers.

Vasilakis added that this study supports the notion and suggests that many mothers who are infected have kids that do not have any physical effects. “It’s been mentioned in the grand scheme of things that there could be several factors associated with the makeup of the human that affects the outcome of the Zika infection.”

 As a result of their findings, the team received a $3.7 million National Institutes of Health grant for five years to continue their studies. They will expand their research as to how host factors affect the way Zika creates birth defects.

Wu said the grant funds will allow them to build on the revelations they found in the lineage study. The team will look at a global gene pool to see if they can locate a gene that blocks the effects of the virus.

She said if the team can reveal how genes in a particular lineage interact with Zika, it could help the medical community create vaccines or other treatments against the virus.

The investigators agreed that pinpointing a Zika infection-blocking gene could be a watershed moment for pregnant women.

“If you have this particular gene you will be completely resistant,” Vasilakis said.




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