Island medics’ team uncovers clues to birth defects cause
By Lora-Marie Bernard
TWO UTMB researchers in Galveston have uncovered a lineage mechanism in the zika virus that could help unravel the cause of horrible birth defects like unnaturally small heads, a condition known as microcephaly.
As a result, their team has received a $3.7 million National Institutes Of Health grant to continue researching how host factors affect the way the mosquito-borne disease creates birth defects, exploring a global gene pool to see if it can locate a gene that blocks the effects of the virus.
If the team can reveal how genes in a particular lineage interact with the virus, it could help the medical community create vaccines or other treatments against the disease.
The two University Of Texas Medical Branch medics, one of whom specializes in neuroscience and cell biology and the other in pathology, combined their skills to lead a team that studied three lineages to see if they could discover the relationship between the virus and the way it impacts humans’ brain nerve cells.
Neuroscience and cell biology professor Ping Wu and associate pathology professor Nikos Vasilakis led the study, which found that one of the three lineages seems to be associated with the birth defects.
Vasilakis said the multidisciplinary approach towards the research helped the team find the new information and build on the existing knowledge of the recent zika epidemic and the birth defects the virus caused.
He said: “It was a great opportunity for us leveraging the many years of expertise”.
Wu said the study’s approach differed from others done by teams outside UTMB, which gave the Galveston study a fresh perspective from which it learned that, of the three lines they studied, one caused a deficit of brain nerve cells.
Vasilakis said the revelation could help researchers unravel how zika seems to randomly create birth defects, saying: “Not every woman that gets infected will deliver a baby with abnormalities.
“The rate is between one to 100 women infected will have a level of abnormality and that level of abnormality is a big spectrum.”
He said damage from a zika infection can range from newborns with abnormal brains to babies with fully-developed brains who exhibit minor defects, such as speech or communication problems. Determining the cause of this wide range has been a stumbling block for researchers.
He said: “This study suggests that many mothers who are infected have kids that do not have any physical effects.
“It’s been mentioned in the grand scheme of things that there could be several factors associated with the human makeup that affects the outcome of the zika infection.”
Wu said the NIH grant funds will allow the team to build on the revelations it found in the lineage study and Vasilakis added that pinpointing a zika-infection-blocking gene could be a watershed moment for pregnant women, saying: “If you have this particular gene you will be completely resistant”.
The team’s findings have been detailed in peer-review publication Stem Cell Reports.