VANCOUVER, OCTOBER 19. Research reports on the mechanism by which Zika virus leads to microcephaly and on exome sequencing of newborns, as well the awarding of the Society’s Allan award to eminent geneticist James Gusella, Ph.D., were among the highlights of a full day of exciting science on the ASHG’s second day in Vancouver. According to work presented this morning by Feiran Zhang (photo), Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University and presenting author on the research, infection with Zika virus disrupts fetal brain development by interfering with the proliferation of human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs), a type of cell that drives neurodevelopment and proliferates into brain and nervous system cells, Understanding Zika’s mechanisms will illuminate how viral infection leads to birth defects such as microcephaly, a condition marked by an abnormally small head and brain size, and could inform the development of therapies and vaccines, Dr. Zhang said. “We set out to study why Zika causes microcephaly and related viruses like dengue virus don’t,” said Dr. Zhang. Dr. Zhang and his colleagues at Emory, Johns Hopkins, and Florida State University focused on the effects of the virus in hNPCs, which are highly susceptible to Zika infection. The hNPCs used in this study were derived from healthy skin cells, Dr. Zhang said. Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in 1947. Since then, two distinct lineages of the virus have been identified, one African in origin and the other Asian. To compare the effects of each virus on gene expression in these cells, the researchers examined all the messenger RNAs (mRNAs) produced by four groups of hNPCs: cells infected with an Asian strain of Zika virus, cells infected with an African strain of Zika virus, cells infected with a reference strain of dengue virus, and a control group.
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