A team of scientists led by Purdue University unveiled the structure of the Zika virus for the first time ever, a major step towards creating antiviral medicines and vaccines that can eradicate the mosquito-borne disease that’s been linked to miscarriage and severe microcephaly.
The team mapped out the physical structure of the Zika virus in near-atomic detail and was able to identify regions within structure that differ from other flaviviruses, the family to which Zika belongs and which includes other devastating mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile, dengue, and yellow fever. Those insights, which were detailed in an article published in the journal Science Thursday, are critical for developing pathways to fight the disease.
“The structure of the virus provides a map that shows potential regions of the virus that could be targeted by a therapeutic treatment, used to create an effective vaccine, or to improve our ability to diagnose and distinguish Zika infection from that of other related viruses,” Richard Kuhn, director of the Purdue Institute for Inflammation, Immunology, and Infections Disease, said in a statement. Kuhn and fellow Purdue professor Michael Rossmann led the research team that made the discovery.
By finding ways that Zika differs from its related group of flaviviruses, scientists hope to find the answer for why it specifically attacks the nervous system and is able to affect a fetus’ brain development.
“It is not clear how Zika gains access to these cells and infects them, but these areas of structural difference may be involved,” said Devika Sirhoi, a graduate student at Purdue who authored the study. “These unique areas may be crucial and warrant further investigation.”
Zika virus has spread to 33 reported countries. Along with the spread have come increased reports of Gullain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can lead to temporary paralysis, in 12 of those countries and an increased incidence of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes brain damage, in Brazil and French Polynesia. The World Health Organization declared the disease “a public health emergency of international concern” in February, spurring funding for research into the disease and potential treatments.
Researchers studied a strain of Zika from a patient infected during the French Polynesia epidemic using cryo-electron microscopy, a relatively new technology that allows the virus structure to been viewed at extremely high resolutions. Compared to other flaviviruses, Zika virus uses a unique array of amino acids that can bind to human cells during infection, which is likely a key point for scientists to block to hinder the disease.
“It could be a good spot for an antiviral compound,” said Rossmann. “If this is the case, perhaps an inhibitor could be designed to block this function and keep the virus from attaching to and infecting human cells.”