Are Sugar Chains The Pathway to A Zika Vaccine?

Although the World Health Organization has lifted its emergency declaration on the Zika virus, that does not mean the concern is entirely dead. For example, officials with the World Health Organization comment, “Many aspects of this disease and associated consequences still remain to be understood, but this can best be done through sustained research.”

It is a wise concern to share, openly, as warmer and warmer weather is likely going to continue to encourage the return of mosquitoes in the United States. Zika, of course, is vector-borne disease, spread when a mosquito bites an infected organism and then transfers the virus to the next organism it bites.

The good news about Zika, of course, is that it does not really pose any threat to healthy adults. However, pregnant mothers who contract the virus can pass it along to their children, and that is where the virus does some real damage. Infants born to an infected mother can have severe birth defects. What is more unfortunate, perhaps, is that there is not yet a single approved vaccine to treat Zika, though last week the National Institutes of Health revealed they have started a new clinical trial of an experimental Zika vaccine.

Of course, a pregnant mother who contracts Zika will still pass the virus to their baby, even if they are able to get the vaccine. It has everything to do with a woman’s placenta, which is designed to keep viruses and bacteria away from the embryo as it grows. So how does Zika get around this? And is Zika’s methodology the secret to learning how to stop it?

Well, new research shows that Zika invades the human anatomy using various human chemical interactions. For one, organic chemistry uses sugar chains in nearly every type of cellular interactions and it is those interactions that the Zika virus uses to penetrate the placenta. Specifically, scientists are finding that a variation of the sugar chain—called chondroitin sulfate—is specific to the human placenta and Zika might use this as a pathway into the placenta.

Scientists reached this theory by first investigating Dengue, whose efficacy relies on proteins in the body. Zika behaves quite similarly, though, uses sugar chains.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor, Robert Linhardt explains, “These are very closely related viruses, and so I think the development of vaccines is going to be very complicated. So that’s why we’re so excited about moving forward with, first, a better understanding of Zika and how it differs from dengue, and second, to try to develop new therapeutic approaches that could be helpful while a vaccine is developed.”

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