Research provides clues about Zika virus damage to foetal brains
The Zika virus has been documented since 1947 and was first discovered to have infected a human in 1952. The virus had not been considered a serious threat, as most symptoms subsided after a week and it was judged to appear only in isolated cases without spreading widely. This all changed in 2015 when it both spread quickly and was found to be linked to thousands of babies being born with underdeveloped brains.
Scientists have found clues as to why the latter development may occur in the brains’ of foetuses. The study found that the Zika virus used a human protein, Musashi-1 (MSI1), to replicate rapidly. In particular, MSI1 is present in significant amounts in neural stem cells that develop to become a baby’s brain.
As the Zika virus enters the cell, it rapidly binds with the MSI1 protein thereby killing the neural stem cells and hindering the development of a healthy brain. The other side-effect of the binding action is that MSI1 loses its ability to influence the level of neural stem cells that develop – further compounding the loss of such cells.
“This is the first study to show a clear link between a specific protein, the Zika virus and microcephaly,” says Dr Mike Turner, Wellcome’s Head of Infection and Immunobiology. “This new finding really helps to explain why neural stem cells are so vulnerable to Zika infection and I hope this can be a first step in determining how we could stop this interaction and disease.”
The latest research development comes only days after it was revealed that the Indian government stood accused of trying to keep the Zika virus spread to the country quiet. It had announced, in January, that one case had been found but did not reveal that there were a further two cases undergoing evaluation.
The further cases were kept quiet for months after they had been identified, causing a public outcry in the area where they were identified, Ahmedabad. Two of the cases involved pregnant women, but both gave birth to healthy children. None of those identified as having the virus had left the country.
It puts further impetus into research, as the spread of the virus continues. It should be said that, overall, the virus does not pose the same threat as when it initially spread rapidly in South America. Brazil, for instance, declared an end to the Zika virus last month. However, in a population as large as India – there is again potential for rapid escalation of the virus and scientists continue to push on in research for a vaccine.
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