Washington D.C.: A team of researchers examining the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly, a condition where a child is born with an abnormally small head as a result of incomplete brain development, has discovered that the virus is capable of quickly infecting and harming developing fetal brain cells.
This Florida State University study is the first major finding that shows that these critical cells are a target of the virus and also negatively affected by it.
Lead author Hengli Tang said that they're trying to fill the knowledge gap between infection and the neurological defects, adding "This research is the very first step in that, but it's answering a critical question. It enables us to focus the research. Now you can be studying the virus in the right cell type, screening your drugs on the right cell type and studying the biology of the right cell type."
Tang, along with researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Emory University, found that the virus, which was discovered in 1947, directly targets a cell type called human embryonic cortical neural progenitors in as little as three days after being exposed to the virus.
They also discovered that these infected cells replicate the Zika virus, posing potential treatment problems, and that the virus is directly interfering with cell growth and function. Some of the cells died after being infected.
Researcher Guo-Li Ming said that potentially, this could explain why there is a link to microcephaly, but there is a lot more work needed to show the direct causal effect.
The study appears in journal Cell Stem Cell.