Infectious Diseases

Updated 21 October 2016

New clues on how Zika virus causes microcephaly

Researchers said Zika disrupts foetal brain development by impairing the growth of cells that normally develop into brain and nervous system cells.

New research may shed light on how the Zika virus causes the devastating birth defect known as microcephaly.

Human neural progenitor cells

Microcephaly causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains.

In this new study, researchers said Zika disrupts foetal brain development by impairing the growth of human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs). These cells normally develop into brain and nervous system cells, the scientists said.

The findings could help lead to the development of vaccines and treatments, the study authors said.

Read: Years before Zika vaccine becomes available

Results from the study were to be presented at the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Vancouver.

A 'Trojan horse'

"We set out to study why Zika causes microcephaly and related viruses like dengue virus don't," presenting author Feiran Zhang said in a society news release. Zhang is a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"Our results suggest that Zika virus might function as a 'Trojan horse' by 'hijacking' the human cell's machinery," Zhang explained. Once it infects cells, the virus interacts with human enzymes in a way that seems to alter brain development, leading to microcephaly, he said.

But Zhang said these findings probably aren't the last word on how Zika causes microcephaly. "It's likely that the mechanisms we found are just some of the many ways in which Zika virus acts," he said.

Research presented at meetings is generally viewed as preliminary published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Read more:

Brazil says Zika vaccine will take 3 to 5 years

Microcephaly only part of Zika birth defect problem

Scientists analyse risk to pregnant women infected with Zika