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Lab study links Zika virus to embryonic neural stem cells

The Zika virus has now been reported in 26 countries as it continues on its path through South and Central America and the Caribbean regions. The number of microcephaly cases appears to be growing.

However, Gizmodo reports this latest breakthrough in the hunt for how the Zika virus works is amazing in itself. A team of multidisciplinary researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, and Florida State University joined a team from the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, GA, worked round-the-clock for a month, trying to solve the mystery of how the Zika virus works.

As we already know, the virus can cause mild symptoms or no symptoms at all in most people. But Medical News Today is reporting the big concern is the viral infection in women in the first trimester of their pregnancies. The virus has been linked to fetal and newborn microcephaly and serious neurological complications such as Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS).

Zika spread through infection of cortical neural precursor cells
The team of researchers focused their study on neuronal cells derived from human induced stem cells. They compared the virus’s effect on human embryonic cortical neural progenitor cells (hNPCs) to two other cell types: induced pluripotent stem cells (cells that can give rise to any cell type in the body, including hNPCs) and immature neurons (hNPCs produce immature neurons), according to the study.

The researchers grew a batch of the Zika virus in mosquito cells for a few days. They then applied the virus to human stem cells. The hNPCs were quickly infected by the Zika virus, with the infection spreading to 65 to 90 percent of the cells within three days of inoculation.

The compromised cells then churned out more copies of the virus. The Zika virus caused an increase in cell death and disturbed the normal cell growth progression, dramatically slowing down cell growth. But the most disturbing thing researchers found was that the genes required to fight the Zika virus were not activated.

What does this mean? It means the cell’s built-in defense system was unable to do anything about being attacked. It was there, but it remained idle. “We’re literally the first people in the world to know this, to know that this virus can infect these very important cells and interfere with their function,” noted Tang in a statement.

While the study was carried out in a laboratory under precise conditions, the researchers say they still don’t know what is happening in the fetus, or why humans only have mild symptoms when they are infected by the virus. More importantly, they still have to figure out how the virus crosses the blood-brain barrier.

One thing is certain, though, this new study has added to the evidence that the virus can cause a serious birth defect, reports CTV News Canada.

This very interesting study, “Zika Virus Infects Human Cortical Neural Progenitors and Attenuates Their Growth,” was published on March 4, 2016, in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

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Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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