FSU researchers discover possible link between Zika and birth defects


  • Photo by James Gathany of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Researchers at Florida State University say they've discovered new evidence that shows the mosquito-borne Zika virus directly targets brain development cells, hindering their growth.

Brazil, the current epicenter of the virus outbreak, has 4,863 suspected and confirmed cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to be born with smaller heads and brains. Brazilian health officials have linked the birth defects to Zika, but research still needs to be done to prove the virus is responsible. 

The new study published this week shows Zika "targets a cell type called human embryonic cortical neural progenitors in as little as three days after being exposed to the virus," according to a news release from FSU. Researchers also found the infected cells reproduce the virus, and that Zika disrupts cell growth and function. 

“We’re trying to fill the knowledge gap between infection and the neurological defects,” says FSU professor Hengli Tang, who is also the lead author of the study. “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.”

As of Thursday, 47 travel-related cases of the Zika virus are currently in Florida, and three of those cases are in Orange County, according to the Florida Department of Health. Four cases in Florida have involved pregnant women. 

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