The director of the Purdue University Institute for Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Diseases says his team of researchers has made a major breakthrough regarding the Zika virus. Richard Kuhn’s team is the first to determine the structure of the virus, which he says will help to develop a treatment.
The team’s findings were published in the journal Science. Kuhn says once they can see how the virus is put together, they can begin to see how a person’s immune system reacts to it and how to develop vaccines and antiviral treatments.
"Most vaccines are done with very little knowledge of the physical structure of what they’re looking for," says Kuhn. "Now we have a structure and we can really make, perhaps, better designer vaccines."
The Zika virus is part of a family of viruses called flaviviruses, which include dengue, West Nile and yellow fever, among others. The team was also able to identify parts of the Zika virus that differentiate it from the other flaviviruses. Kuhn says any unique features of Zika could explain how it is transmitted and becomes a disease.
Purdue says his team plans to conduct further testing to evaluate different parts of the virus as targets for treatment. Michael Rossman, distinguished professor of biological sciences at Purdue and Kuhn’s partner, says the university’s recent $250 million life sciences investment funded the purchase of advanced equipment that allowed the team to achieve certain accomplishments in a matter a months, rather than years.
"We were able to determine through cryo-electron microscopy the virus structure at a resolution that previously would only have been possible through X-ray crystallography," said Rossman. "Since the 1950s X-ray crystallography has been the standard method for determining the structure of viruses, but it requires a relatively large amount of virus, which isn’t always available; it can be very difficult to do, especially for viruses like Zika that have a lipid membrane and don’t organize accurately in a crystal; and it takes a long time. Now, we can do it through electron microscopy and view the virus in a more native state. This was unthinkable only a few years ago."
Zika virus is mosquito-borne and has been reported in 33 countries. The university says it has been associated with microcephaly, a birth defect that causes brain damage and abnormally small heads in babies born to mothers infected during pregnancy. It has also been associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can lead to temporary paralysis.
"This breakthrough illustrates not only the importance of basic research to the betterment of human health, but also its nimbleness in quickly addressing a pressing global concern," said Purdue President Mitch Daniels. "This talented team of researchers solved a very difficult puzzle in a remarkably short period of time, and have provided those working on developing vaccines and treatments to stop this virus a map to guide their way."
The research was funded through an existing grant from the National Institutes of Health National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to Kuhn, Rossman and collegues Michael Diamond and Daved Fremont at Washington University. The team also received an emergency supplement specifically for Zika research in February.
Kuhn explains the benefits of identifying the structure of the Zika virus.