I have been getting gradually more alarmed, even terrified, about the devastating spread of the Zika virus every time I hear about it. It's now rampant in 52 countries, wreaking havoc and wrecking lives, with no cure available. But I have faith in human enterprise; I believe we will find a cure. And the good news is that scientists have discovered a tiny human protein found in our cells that can limit and even stop the virus from infecting and killing cells.
: The red areas are, or are predicted to be, potential danger areas for Zika
The Zika virus
Zika is such a terrible virus for three reasons. Firstly, it causes mild and often unnoticeable symptoms. Therefore, Zika could be present in a community long before anyone even realizes. Secondly, it causes awful birth defects, such as microcephaly, which is a neurological condition describing a too small head and brain. This is very dangerous. For this reason, many governments are telling certain areas of the world to refrain from reproducing for two years.
Zika is particularly dangerous for pregnant women, as unborn infants are susceptible to massive birth defects as a result of infection
And thirdly, it can be transmitted by mosquito bites and through sexual contact. Therefore, it’s not just a matter of eliminating mosquitoes (even if that were possible), or going to a place that lacks the insects. Unfortunately many of the places in the world currently affected by Zika are areas where birth rates are high and contraceptives are not as widely available.
Zika is also transmitted through sexual contact
A hopeful new discovery
Scientists from the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) have discovered that a protein we all have to a greater of lesser degree can reduce and even prevent Zika’s infectious powers. Interferon-induced protein 3 (IFITM3) is found in virtually all human cells.
Scientists have given us hope with their new discovery of IFITM3's resilience against Zika
If our levels of this protein are less than average, Zika bursts through the cells’ defensive walls, causing infection. If our levels of the protein are above average, our cells walls prove resistant to Zika. What this causes is a de facto virus quarantine situation, where certain cells prevent the virus from getting to other cells. It is believed that this reduces the chance of cell death also.
A Yellow Fever mosquito (Aedes Aegyptii): the most common carrier of the Zika Virus
What’s the next step for scientists?
We are still unsure how IFITM3 actually works, so research will focus on this. Using mice with low levels of the protein, scientists will hopefully find that a lack of IFITM3 does indeed let in the Zika infection. Then the problem will be finding a way to improve people’s levels of the protein, taking into account any side-effects. It may even be the case that IFITM3 is not only a reliable shield against Zika but also against other viruses too. Therefore, this could be a major step forward.
Video: 10 Facts about the Zika Virus