Right now, there's no vaccine or treatment for Zika, although the mosquito-borne virus is expected to make its way to the United States in the coming weeks as the weather continues to warm. Public health officials are warning people to limit exposure to the mosquito that carries the virus by taking precautions like wearing insect repellant and clothing that covers arms and legs. Although the effects of the virus on adults are usually negligible, the outcomes on babies born to mothers who have contracted it while pregnant are oftentimes catastrophic, because it leads to significant birth defects. So, medical researchers are searching for ways to fight the virus, and a new development from the University of Massachusetts Medical School suggests that Zika could soon have a treatment.
Scientists there have discovered a protein that exists in the human body and also has the ability to stop the spread of Zika once a person has been infected, The Economic Times reported. The protein, officially called IFITM3, may also be able to prevent the Zika virus from killing human cells in some cases, and this could pave the way for new treatments and therapies to thwart the virus.
"This work represents the first look at how our cells defend themselves against Zika virus' attack," UMMS assistant professor Abraham Bass said in a press release. "Our results show that Zika virus has a weakness that we could potentially exploit to prevent or stop infection."
Essentially, the researchers found that, when more of the protein was present in a human or mouse body, the cell membrane was stronger and blocked viruses from entering a cell, staunching the potential for an infection. The opposite was true when the protein's levels were low.
"This work shows that IFITM3 acts as an early front line defender to prevent Zika virus from getting its hands on all of the resources in our cells that it needs to grow," research associate George Savidis said, according to the press release. "IFITM3 pretty much keeps Zika virus stuck in no man's land where it can't do anything to harm us."
This finding comes at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still working to determine the likelihood that an infection in the fetus will actually lead to birth defects or other problems, and are trying to figure out at what point during a pregnancy Zika affects the fetus. Microcephaly, which manifests in abnormally small heads and brain damage, has become the most recognizable outcome of Zika since the virus was first reported in Brazil in the beginning of 2015.
Officials in many sectors are working to find ways to inhibit the spread of the Zika virus, both before it really begins in the United States and in countries that have been dealing with outbreaks, which are mostly in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. (In some of these countries, women are encouraged to wait to become pregnant, underscoring the seriousness of the scourge.)
President Obama, for example, is urging Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency finding, and a British biotech company is seeking FDA approval to introduce its genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild in Florida — a move it says will dramatically reduce the population of Aedes aegypti, the vector mosquito.
Already in the United State, there have been 618 reported cases of the Zika virus, but all of them are travel related, meaning that the infected person traveled to an affected country and got bitten by a mosquito carrying the disease or had sex with someone who did (oh yeah, you can get it that way, too). Elsewhere, though, the situation is even more immediate and dire, so any breakthroughs and discoveries, like the one from the University of Massachusetts, are very, very welcome developments.