Science - November 18, 2016

Zika virus multiplies in placenta and testicles (video)

Text:
Albert Sikkema

Zika is a very unique arbovirus because it accumulates in our placenta, testicles and eyes. This was reported yesterday by top virologist Michael Diamond during the Goldbach Lecture in Wageningen. Diamond has done extensive research on the expression and spread of zika in mice.

<Michael Diamond, film: Vincent Koperdraat>

In the past few years, 3 million people on the American continent have been infected by the zika virus. Researchers do not know why zika suddenly changed two years ago from an insignificant, dormant virus to an aggressive one that can infect, for example, the foetus in the uterus of pregnant women. Hardly any research on zika had been done. ‘We are still using research from 1947 when the zika virus was discovered in Uganda and from 1976 when limited outbreaks of the virus sporadically occurred in Asia. Why it became an epidemic in Latin America is unclear.’

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Zika is predominantly spread by mosquitoes, but what makes the virus unique is that it can also be sexually transmitted via the testicles and that the virus can be transmitted from mother to child if it has established itself in the placenta. Diamond’s research team has discovered that the virus can stay alive for a long period in sperm, urine and tears. Zika establishes itself in the placenta of pregnant mice, multiplies there and then spreads to the infant’s brain. The virus attacks the brain and nerve cells and can also affect the vision and fertility of laboratory animals.    

The question is whether Diamond’s research results also apply to humans. He is now going to study the sperm of men in Central America. The best remedy for the zika virus is still unknown.   

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Research is currently being done on vaccines against zika. That is the most conventional and inexpensive medicine for this virus disease, Diamond said, but it involves dangers. As long as we do not precisely know how zika works, a vaccine can spread the disease. Diamond himself is working on a therapy with monoclonal antibodies. These are proteins that bind specifically to certain receptors of the virus so that it can no longer multiply. Diamond has already found a promising protein in someone suffering from zika.  

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