Zika Virus Updates: Study Finds Damaging Proteins

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Jan 16, 2017 08:59 AM EST

Twins Eloisa (R) and Eloa, both 8 months old and both born with microcephaly, lie in bed on Christmas eve at the home of the twin's grandparents on December 24, 2016 in Areia, Paraiba state, Brazil. (Photo : Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Little is known about the zika virus and how it works. Over the past years, scientists discovered that it can cause numerous complicated health issues such as birth defects (microcephaly) and neurological issues like Guillain-Barre syndrome.

But it was unknown which Zika protein or proteins are responsible for the harm or exactly how the proteins cause damage. A recent study by scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM) has identified seven key proteins in the Zika virus that may be the major cause of the damage. This is the first comprehensive description of the Zika virus genome.

The virus can be transmitted through sexual activities and the bites from Aedes mosquitoes. It is mostly accompanied by mild symptoms such as fever, muscle soreness and joint pain. The symptoms eventually fade and can be mistaken for common flu.

The virus has infected thousands of people across the globe with more than 38,000 Zika reported cases in the U.S. and its territories. There is still no vaccine or treatment for the symptoms of Zika infection.

Dr. Richard Zhao, a professor of pathology at UMSOM, used fission yeast - species that has become a common way to test how pathogens affect cells, to test the virus. Fission yeast (Schizosaccharomyces pombe another name for beer in Swahili) was originally used to make beer and has been used by scientists for many years to check mechanisms and behavior of cells, according to Science Daily.

Dr. Zhao is already very familiar with the fission yeast model as he had previously used the fission yeast model to study HIV and the Yellow Barley Dwarf virus. "With Zika we are in a race against time," he says. "I asked myself what I can do to help. I have this unique way of dissecting the genome. So I started on this."

When conducting the experiment, the researchers separated each of the 14 proteins of the virus as well as small peptides from the overall virus. They exposed yeast cells to each of the 14 proteins to check how the cells responded. The researchers discovered that seven out of the 14 proteins harmed or damaged the yeast cells in some way and impaired, which eventually caused either critical damage or death of the cells, Contagion Live reported.

The researchers found that the proteins - NS4A and NS4B are responsible for microcephaly. They examined three strains of Zika in the second trimester of human fetal neutral stem cells and found that these proteins accounts for creating fetal brain formation and mobilizing the Zika proteins.

The Zika proteins strike a cellular signaling gatekeeper known as "Akt-mTOR pathway," which disoriented brain development and autophagy regulation and could help kill pathogens. The researchers confirmed that Zika proteins utilize the energy and nutrients of autophagy.

They control the fetal neutral stem cells and contracted the size of brain organoids by 65 percent. There was also 51 percent reduction in the separation of neural stem cells into mature brain cells.

However, they will conduct further studies on the topic as they now have some really valuable clues for future research, according to Zhao. Future studies will focus on how the seven proteins work in humans.

It will also check their effects to see if some of them are more damaging than others, or whether all of them work together cause harm. The teams have commenced a study on how the virus interacts with rat and human cells.

The discovery of these proteins will lead to improving medical treatments for the disease. The researchers published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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