The secret to fighting Zika could exist in our own immune systems

image of infant with microcephaly
In this Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, file photo, Lara, who is less than 3 months old and was born with microcephaly, is examined by a neurologist at the Pedro I hospital in Campina Grande, Paraiba state, Brazil. Felipe Dana/AP

Fourteen months after the Zika virus was declared a global health emergency, the long-term effects of the virus – and the neurological damage linked to it – are only now beginning to be understood. As Zika infections continue to spread, researchers around the world are working to expose the virus’ vulnerabilities. New research published  by Genhong Cheng and Ben Novitch, investigators at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, has brought us one step closer to protecting those most at risk of Zika infection and its devastating outcomes.

Although most people who are infected with the mosquito-borne pathogen experience no symptoms at all, for some it brings consequences that will be felt for a lifetime. The infection can spread through mosquito bites and sexual contact and from mother to fetus. Thousands of women infected with the Zika virus have given birth to infants with microcephaly, a condition characterized by an abnormally small head and severely stunted brain development that can also cause seizures and breathing difficulties, as well as vision and hearing problems.

Cheng, a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and Novitch, a professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and their colleagues, found that an enzyme produced naturally by the immune system can be manufactured into a compound that could ultimately help fight the disease. Their preclinical studies, published last month in the journal Immunity, suggest that the compound could both suppress Zika infection and reduce the neurological damage linked to the virus.

Previous research published by Cheng in 2013 found that this enzyme, called 25-hydroxycholestrol, or 25HC, can protect cells against a broad range of viruses including hepatitis C, Ebola and HIV. While the body doesn’t typically produce enough 25HC to combat these and other aggressive viruses, the administration of a synthetically produced version does the trick, according to animal studies.

Recently, Cheng and his colleagues tested the enzyme’s effects on mini brain organoids, which are small sections of simplified, three-dimensional brain tissue engineered in the lab from human stem cells. They found that the enzyme blocked the virus and preserved normal brain cell formation in the organoids, which demonstrates the enzyme’s potential for treating humans with Zika. The research team will continue to study 25HC in the hopes of developing a more effective drug that can block Zika and other mosquito-borne viruses.

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