In a study published Thursday in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, scientists at the University of California, San Diego were able to determine what happens when the virus enters a human cell, possibly contributing to the rapid spread of Zika in Latin America and the Caribbean beginning in mid-2015.
The team found that Zika infections lead to modifications in the genetic material of the humans’ immune systems and the virus itself, which influences its spread and the body’s response.
Human genetic material is comprised of DNA and RNA, while certain viruses — such as Zika — are made up of only RNA. For humans, RNA carries generic information from DNA to create new cells.
When Zika infects a human cell, the cell modifies viral RNA to fight off the infection, the team discovered. But that conversion triggers human enzymes that may hinder the cell’s protective shield, making it easier to for the virus to spread. Zika infection also induces changes in human RNA, according to the study.
“I’m excited about this study because it teaches us something new about the human immune system,” said lead author Tariq Rana. “But these findings are also something researchers should keep in mind as they are designing new Zika virus vaccines and treatments that target the viral genome.”
By adjusting viral RNA, the virus was able to “hide in plain sight,” Rana said.
The findings may not impact vaccine development, but they could help to develop drugs that prevent the devastating birth defects that have been reported since the Zika epidemic was first identified, according to Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Hotez was not involved in the study.
The study could help future research into how Zika causes so much damage in a developing fetus.
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