Cracking Zika’s code at Purdue

Published February 2017

Since it was first identified in Uganda in 1947, the Zika virus has spread to humans in the United States, Mexico and throughout South America. Most people who contract the virus from a mosquito bite never know it. Others may have mild symptoms, like a rash, joint pain, red eyes and fever.

Risk of birth defects persists

Zika is very dangerous to unborn babies, and there is no vaccine yet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says babies of infected moms can be born with problems like microcephaly, which causes brain damage. Babies also can have defects of the nervous system, eyes and ears, and their growth can be impaired.

Moving the research forward

To beat such an enemy, you have to understand it. In March 2016, Purdue scientists were the first in the world to show how the Zika virus is built — a key step toward understanding how the Zika virus attacks, infects cells and spreads. Now, Michael Rossmann, a world-renowned virus expert and Purdue's Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences; and Richard Kuhn, professor biological sciences, have figured out more about Zika that differentiates it from other viruses in the family of flaviviruses. Other flaviviruses include encephalitic viruses that are spread by ticks along with West Nile and yellow fever viruses. Flaviviruses have been considered infectious only when the mature form of the virus is passed from cell to cell. With Zika, however, Rossmann says, the immature form of the virus appears to be infectious, too.

Steps toward a vaccine

Richard Kuhn, who directs Purdue's Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease, also is a globally recognized Purdue scientist. He says uncovering this nuance of the immature Zika virus sets the stage for determining what changes happen with the virus as it matures — and why. Understanding those pieces to the virus puzzle is a crucial step toward effective antiviral treatments and vaccines.