Drugs for Zika could target this protein

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Researchers have mapped a key protein that causes Zika virus to reproduce and spread. The work could speed the path to new treatments for the infectious disease.

“Mapping this protein provides us the ability to reproduce a key part of the Zika virus in a lab,” says Cheng Kao, a professor of molecular and cellular biology at Indiana University. “This means we can quickly analyze existing drugs and other compounds that can disrupt the spread of the virus. Drugs to target the Zika virus will almost certainly involve this protein.”

Zika virus has infected more than 1 million people in 52 countries and territories in the Americas since 2015, the World Health Organization reports. The disease has also been confirmed to cause microcephaly in more than 2,700 infants born to women infected with the virus while pregnant. Symptoms include neurological disorders and a head that is significantly smaller than normal.

The virus is also transmissible through sexual activity and can trigger an autoimmune disease in adults called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Findings of the study, published in Nature Communications, reveal the structure of the Zika virus protein NS5, which contains two enzymes needed for the virus to replicate and spread. The first enzyme reduces the body’s ability to mount an immune response against infection and the second helps “kick off” the replication process.

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“We need to do everything we can to find effective drugs against the Zika virus, as changes in travel and climate have caused more tropical diseases to move into new parts of the globe,” says Kao, who has also spent 15 years studying the virus that causes hepatitis C.

“We’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to fight this class of virus through previous work on hepatitis C, as well as other work on the HIV/AIDS virus.”

The findings also show that the Zika virus protein is similar in structure to proteins from viruses that cause dengue fever, West Nile virus, Japanese encephalitis virus, and hepatitis C, which prompted scientists to test several compounds that combat those diseases. They also tested other compounds to disrupt the virus’s replication.

“Drugs approved to treat hepatitis C and compounds in development to treat other viral diseases are prime candidates to use against the Zika virus,” Kao says. “We’re continuing to work with industry partners to screen compounds for effectiveness against the NS5 protein.”

The method used to reproduce the virus protein in the lab is the subject of a US patent application filed by the IU Research and Technology Corp.

Additional researchers from Indiana University Bloomington, Texas A&M University, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are coauthors of the study. The Johnson Center for Innovation and Translational Research at IU Bloomington supported the work.

Source: Indiana University