Zika virus breakthrough: researchers find protein that inhibits infection

University of Massachusetts Medical School researchers have made a breakthrough in their evaluation of the zika virus, finding that a "very small protein" found in every human greatly inhibits the virus' ability to infect cells, and may also keep the virus from killing brain cells. The protein is called "interferon-induced protein 3," IFITM3 for short, and is the first reported weakness discovered in with the zika virus.

The findings were recently discovered in a paper authored by Abraham Brass, MD and PhD; the study is available now in Cell Reports. Genomic tools developed by Brass to investigate the human cellular response to flaviviruses, including zika, were adapted and used to investigate the zika virus specifically. It has only been 8 weeks since the UMMS team received their initial zika virus samples.

Using tools that had already been developed for probing similar infections, as well as past research hinting that the IFITM3 protein may have a role in blocking these types of viruses, enabled the researchers to move quickly. Speaking to ScienceDaily, Brass said, "We simply adapted the technology we'd developed over the last four years working with dengue, influenza and other viruses to begin work on Zika virus ... What might have taken many months or longer to build, we were able to turn around in just several weeks."

In their work, the researchers found that the aforementioned protein "allows our cells to swallow up and quarantine the virus," which blocks the infection and helps protect other cells from being invaded. While there are still no treatments for zika virus, this breakthrough discovery could potentially lead to a treatment, such as molecules that increase IFITM3 levels, potentially better equipping the human body to quarantine zika and prevent infections.