Infection by the Zika virus leads to modifications of both viral and human genetic material, which could impact the way treatments are designed, researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine reported Thursday.
In a study published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, the scientists said the changes in a type of molecule called a “methyl group” influence both the replication of virus cells and the human immune response.
“I’m excited about this study because it teaches us something new about the human immune system,” said Tariq Rana, a professor of pediatrics and senior author of the study. “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 — some approaches won’t work unless they take methylation into account.”
Zika is a mosquito-borne disease that can cause microcephaly — a condition where babies’ heads and brains are smaller than normal — in cases when mothers were infected during pregnancy. Otherwise, health officials say most people recover quickly.
There have been some Zika cases in San Diego County, all of which are believed to have been acquired when the patients were traveling overseas.
Rana’s team found that when Zika infects a human cell, it modifies RNA and prompts a reaction from certain enzymes. Silencing those enzymes decreased the production of the virus, they said.
The scientists plan to investigate the role of RNA modifications in the viral life cycle, and how the human immune response is altered by various Zika virus strains. They are also developing small molecules to target specific RNA structures as a means to treat Zika virus infections.
Researchers from the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, University of Chicago and Howard Hughes Medical Institute also participated in the study. Funding was provided, in part, by the National Institutes of Health and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
—City News Service
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