Florida State University researchers have made a major breakthrough in the quest to learn whether the Zika virus is linked to birth defects with the discovery that the virus is directly targeting brain development cells and stunting their growth.
An outbreak of Zika virus has been spanning continents, including the USA, and new evidence now links how it might be causing birth defects in newborn babies.
In an unrelated study Friday, researchers found that Zika can infect embryonic cells that help form the brain, and harm them in two ways: killing some outright and damaging the ability of others to divide and grow in number.
“Our study shows once the virus gets to the brain it can reach these very important cells”, researcher Hengli Tang, the study’s lead author from Florida State University, said in an interview.
Noting more confirmatory epidemiologic data is still needed from Zika endemic areas, Alyssa Stephenson-Famy, assistant professor at the University of Washington, said: “This is exactly the kind of research that we need to demonstrate a causative link and mechanism between the Zika virus and microcephaly”.
The study highlighted that women between their 6th and 35th week of pregnancy are especially susceptible to the Zika virus.
The Atlanta-based agency is warning pregnant women to avoid more than 30 areas where the Zika virus is actively spreading.
The virus has been blamed for causing microcephaly, a condition where a child is born with an abnormally small head as a result of incomplete brain development.
The virus was able to infect up to 90% of neural progenitor cells in a sample leading to almost a third of cells dying and the growth of the rest being disrupted. However, no strong associations between Zika and microcephaly has been found yet.
Published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, the study involved laboratory experiments wherein the scientists used petri dishes.
There is not now a vaccine for Zika virus.
Zika virus has recently emerged as a public health concern, but it was first discovered in Uganda in the 1940s.
While bolstering the connection between Zika virus and brain defects in babies, one of the researchers cautioned that it doesn’t establish a conclusive link.
And the virus may pose a threat not just in the first trimester, but throughout a woman’s pregnancy.
The WHO’s Emergency Committee will meet on March 7-9 to review “evolving information” and its recommendations on travel and trade in what is thought to be high season for transmission of the mosquito-borne virus in the southern hemisphere.