UTMB scientists make huge leap in quest to stop Zika virus

KTRK logo
Monday, May 16, 2016
An Aedes aegypti mosquito is photographed through a microscope at the Fiocruz institute in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.

GALVESTON, TX (KTRK) -- Scientists from the Houston area are hoping they've taken a giant leap forward in the international race to stop the spread of the Zika virus.

A team of scientists at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is now able to clone the virus strain, a key development that could help them learn about the evolution of the virus and how to stop, or treat, it.

"The new Zika clone, together with mosquito infection models and the UTMB-developed Zika mouse model, represent a major advance towards deciphering why the virus is tied to serious diseases," said lead author Pei-Yong Shi, UTMB endowed professor. "The new clone is also a critical step in developing a vaccine and antiviral drug against Zika."

The Zika virus is responsible for microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome. Figuring out how the virus spreads could be key in stopping its transmission.

"There are a number of possible factors that may account for the current Zika virus epidemic that can now be tested with the UTMB clone. For instance, the Zika virus may have evolved in a way that enhances mosquito transmission, leading to it spreading much more quickly," according to the UTMB-Galveston statement. "This idea could be tested by comparing how infectious the original Zika strains are to mosquitos with current strains, followed by manipulating the clone to test the effects of recent mutations on mosquito transmission.

"It is possible that the Zika virus has adapted to maintain higher virus concentrations in peoples' blood, making it easier to cross the placenta and cause microcephaly. This possibility could be ruled out or confirmed by engineering mutant Zika viruses and testing out the effects on Zika mice."