Zika treatment in the works with already accessible drugs

Lawrence Goodwyn

With no cure for Zika available yet, scientists at the UT Medical Branch at Galveston have been trying to find a cure for the virus using medications that are already on the market. 

The team, which began working on this project in January, tested a catalog of 774 medications that are used to treat a variety of ailments, and discovered 20 of them inhibited Zika activity. 

“They ranged from really simple over-the-counter drugs to more complex ones like anti-cancer compounds and antibiotics,” said Nick Barrows, the lead author of the study. 

The team isolated viral genes from Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in Tapachulas, Chiapa, Mexico and tested the drugs on the genes in-vitro.

The team used multiple cell types, including neural stem cells and amnion cells, which make up the amniotic sac, to monitor the effectiveness of the drugs on the cells.

Mariano Garcia-Blanco, chair of UTMB at Galveston’s biochemistry and molecular biology department, also worked with Barrows on the study. 

“We can detect the efficacy of the drugs by how much of the [Zika] viral proteins are still present under a microscope,”  Garcia-Blanco said.

The scientists were able to clearly examine how well the drugs were working because they were studying the virus’ cellular activity, focusing on the activity of the virus inside the body, rather than killing the mosquitoes in their adult and larval stages. 

While all of the 20 drugs showed inhibitory function, they each worked slightly differently. In some cases, the drug would eliminate just the virus, but not kill the cell, or vice-versa.

The team also researched the efficacy of these drugs on pregnant women and people suffering from sickle cell anemia. These people can face further complications when infected with Zika. 

If a woman is infected with Zika while pregnant, her baby may be born with an abnormally small head, a condition known as microcephaly. Sickle cell anemia makes a person less able to defend themselves from the virus and complicates the conditions of the disease.

“In the long term, we’d like to see how these drugs will work in a living organism,” Barrows said. 

So far, the research has only gone through preclinical testing. Researchers plan to test how the drugs work in a living human body during clinical studies, where there are more complex and various types of cells acting at once. 

“The benefit is that we can skip a lot of the safety steps in testing these drugs because they’ve already been approved, but professionals must make the decision as to whether or not the drugs can be used for the Zika virus in the future,” Barrows said.