By Efeunu Erezi & Precious John-Aziken
Hope is underway as scientists report that a specialised drug screen test using lab-grown human cells has revealed two classes of compounds already in the pharmaceutical arsenal that may work against mosquito-borne Zika virus infections.
In a summary of their work, published in Nature Medicine on Aug. 29, the investigators say they screened 6,000 existing compounds currently in late-stage clinical trials or already approved for human use for other conditions, and identified several compounds that showed the ability to hinder or halt the progress of the Zika virus in lab-grown human neural cells.
The research collaboration includes teams from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health and Florida State University. According to the Director, Stem Cell Programme, Institute of Cell Engineering, Johns Hopkins, Hongjun Song, “It takes years if not decades to develop a new drug. “In this sort of global health emergency, we don’t have that kind of time.”
On his part, Prof. of neurology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Guo-li Ming added that: “So instead of using new drugs, we chose to screen existing drugs. In this way, we hope to create a therapy much more quickly.” The new findings are an extension of previous work by the research team, which found that Zika mainly targets specialised stem cells that give rise to neurons in the brain’s outer layer, the cortex.
The researchers observed Zika’s effects in two and three dimensional cell cultures called “mini-brains,” which share structures with the human brain and allow researchers to study the effects of Zika in a more accurate model for human infection.
In the current study, the research team exposed similar cell cultures to the Zika virus and the drugs one at a time, measuring for indicators of cell death, including caspase-3 activity, a chemical marker of cell death, and ATP, a molecule whose presence is indicative of cell vitality.