While vaccines against Zika virus are being developed, there is currently no drug to treat or prevent infection. With its link to microcephaly (babies born with small brains) and other neurological conditions, this virus has become a global health emergency. To fast-track drug development, scientists performed a specialized screen using lab-grown human cells to identify compounds that may fight Zika virus infection. From ~6,000 compounds in late-stage clinical trials or approved for human use for other conditions, the group identified two classes of compounds that protected neural cells from virus-induced death: antiviral drugs (inhibiting viral replication) or neuroprotective drugs (protecting neural cells from damage). Their report published Aug. 29 in Nature Medicine stated the combination of drugs from these two classes appeared to be even more protective. However, we don’t know if these drugs can penetrate the central nervous system of adults or a fetus inside a carrier’s womb. We also don’t know if these drugs can prevent effects like microcephaly. Future work in animal models and humans remains – but this innovative drug screen may have saved researchers years of work.
Image: Zika virus infection in human neural culture system (“organoids”). Neural cells infected with virus are green; dead neural cells are red.
Credit: Xuyu Qian, Johns Hopkins University.