Zika breakthrough? Scientists identify molecules that take over the immune system - and how to stop them
- Glasgow University scientists have mapped out the genome of Zika
- They took samples from a patient in Recife, Brazil - epicenter of the global outbreak
- Their tests showed molecules that inhibit the host's immune system
- It could be crucial to developing a virus that blocks Zika's takeover
Scientists have identified how the Zika virus takes over the immune system in a major breakthrough that paves the way for a virus.
The virus outbreak has transformed a previously little-known infection into a global public health emergency.
But researchers are still largely ignorant about Zika's chemical makeup, how it causes its symptoms, and how it survives in the body for months.
Now researchers at Glasgow University have been able to shed more light on how the Zika virus works by sequencing the full-length genome of the virus from a patient in Brazil.
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They studied blood samples taken from a patient with classic symptoms.
From that, they managed to show the full genomic sequence of the virus, including non-coding regions.
Importantly, the research also identified a Zika virus-derived molecule that inhibits part of the host's immune system.
Researchers insist this could be the key to understanding how the virus develops into a devastating disease, that can leave babies with life-long brain damage if infected during pregnancy.
The research, published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, was supported by the UK Government and Brazilian partners through the Newton Fund and undertaken with a group of international colleges, including in Brazil.
The team compared the genome sequence from the South American Zika virus in a in Recife, Brazil, with other available Zika sequences.
They then looked at the non-coding regions of the sequence which are often missing from other sequences.
Some Zika babies may not be born with microcephaly but still suffer life-long complications, such as two-month-old Micaela Milagros Mendoza (pictured), a Venezuelan child who has Zika-related calcification in her brain and scarring in her retinas
The team detected a portion of the viral genome in infected cells called sfRNA.
The researchers said sfRNA is also detected in infections by related viruses such as dengue.
It acts by inhibiting specific parts of the host cell's antiviral response.
Dr Alain Kohl, of the Glasgow Centre for Virus research, said: 'We have used the information from a Brazilian isolate, which we obtained from our colleagues in Brazil and fully characterised it in collaboration with them, to identify a virus-derived molecule that inhibits a very important part of the host antiviral response system.
'It is particularly important to show this with sequence information as close as possible to the patient-derived virus, as virus strains that are adapted in cell culture may start to mutate.
'This information is important for understanding the pathogenesis of Zika virus infection but may also be useful for the design of attenuated viruses for vaccine studies in the future.'
The researchers hope that the full-length sequence of the patient-derived Zika virus will support efforts to combating the virus.
They also expect the detection of the immune-system-inhibiting molecule will be important to further understand the virus and how it interacts with its host.
The mosquito-transmitted Zika virus has recently caused large scale outbreaks in French Polynesia in 2013, New Caledonia, the Cook Islands and Easter Island in 2014 and the Americas in May 2015, beginning in Brazil.
The outbreaks have also been characterized by an increased prevalence of neurological syndromes, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome and microcephaly.
As of April this year the WHO announced that 60 countries had reported transmission in the escalating epidemic, which originated in Bahia, Brazil in 2015 and has so far resulted in more than 1.5 million suspected cases.
LATEST ON ZIKA: WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE VIRUS
HOW DO PEOPLE GET IT?
Zika is transmitted to people through the bite of infected female mosquitoes, primarily the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
It is the same type that spreads dengue, chikungunya and yellow fever.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are found in all countries in the Americas except Canada and continental Chile.
Zika will likely reach all countries and territories of the region where Aedes mosquitoes are found.
The virus can also be transmitted through sex, from either a male or female partner who has been infected.
A few cases of apparent infection via blood transfusion have been reported.
A mother can pass the virus to her unborn fetus.
Current research indicates the greatest microcephaly risk is associated with infection during the first trimester of pregnancy, but health officials have warned an impact could be seen in later weeks.
Recent studies have shown evidence of Zika in amniotic fluid, placenta and fetal brain tissue.
HOW DO YOU TREAT ZIKA?
There is no treatment or vaccine for Zika infection.
Companies and scientists are racing to develop a safe and effective vaccine for Zika.
However, a preventative shot is not expected to be ready for widespread use for at least two or three years.
WHAT ARE THE DANGERS?
The CDC concluded that infection with the Zika virus in pregnant women is a cause of the birth defect microcephaly.
Microcephaly is a condition defined by unusually small heads that can result in developmental problems, and other severe brain abnormalities in babies.
The CDC said that since the causal relationship had been established, several important questions must still be answered with studies that could take years.
The World Health Organization in an updated assessment said the 'most likely explanation' is that Zika virus infection during pregnancy is a cause of congenital brain abnormalities including microcephaly.
Brazil recently reported 1,949 confirmed cases of microcephaly believed to be linked to Zika infections in pregnant women.
It is investigating more than 3,030 suspected cases of microcephaly.
The WHO also updated its guidelines to say the infection is a trigger of Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS), a rare neurological disorder that can result in paralysis.
Its previous statement, based on a rapid assessment of evidence, said there was strong scientific consensus that Zika virus caused GBS, microcephaly and other neurological disorders.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
People infected with Zika may have a mild fever, skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain and fatigue that can last for two to seven days.
But as many as 80 per cent of people infected never develop symptoms.
HOW CAN ZIKA BE CONTAINED?
Efforts to control the spread of the virus focus on eliminating mosquito breeding sites and taking precautions against mosquito bites such as using insect repellent and mosquito nets.
U.S. and international health officials have advised pregnant women to avoid travel to Latin American and Caribbean countries, sections of Miami, Florida in the United States and Singapore where they may be exposed to Zika.
They are also advising that men and women who have traveled to Zika outbreak areas use condoms or abstain from sex for six months to prevent sexual transmission of the virus.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS THE OUTBREAK?
Active Zika outbreaks have been reported in at least 59 countries or territories, most of them in the Americas, according to the CDC. Brazil has been the country most affected.
Africa: 1 country
Americas: 49 countries
Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Bonaire, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curaçao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saba, Puerto Rico, Saint Barthelmy, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Eustatius, St. Maarten, St. Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos, United States, U.S. Virgin Islands, Venezuela.
Asia: 1 country
Oceania/Pacific Islands: 8 countries
American Samoa, Fiji, Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga.
HISTORY OF ZIKA
The Zika virus is found in tropical locales with large mosquito populations.
Outbreaks of Zika have been recorded in Africa, the Americas, Southern Asia and the Western Pacific.
The virus was first identified in Uganda in 1947 in rhesus monkeys and was first identified in people in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania, according to the WHO.
ANY OTHER ZIKA-RELATED COMPLICATIONS?
Zika has also been associated with other neurological disorders, including serious brain and spinal cord infections.
The long-term health consequences of Zika infection are unclear.
Other uncertainties surround the incubation period of the virus and how Zika interacts with other viruses that are transmitted by mosquitoes, such as dengue.
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