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Existing drug compounds can stop Zika

Staff Writer |
Medical researchers have found existing drug compounds that can both stop Zika from replicating in the body and from damaging the crucial fetal brain cells that lead to birth defects in newborns.

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A team of researchers was from Florida State University, Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health. One of the drugs is already on the market as a treatment for tapeworm.

"We focused on compounds that have the shortest path to clinical use," said FSU Professor of Biological Science Hengli Tang. "This is a first step toward a therapeutic that can stop transmission of this disease."

Tang, along with Johns Hopkins Professors Guo-Li Ming and Hongjun Song and National Institutes of Health scientist Wei Zheng identified two different groups of compounds that could potentially be used to treat Zika - one that stops the virus from replicating and the other that stops the virus from killing fetal brain cells, also called neuroprogenitor cells.

One of the identified compounds is the basis for a drug called Nicolsamide, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved drug that showed no danger to pregnant women in animal studies. It is commonly used to treat tapeworm.

This could theoretically be prescribed by a doctor today, though tests are still needed to determine a specific treatment regimen for the infection.

Researchers around the world have been feverishly working to better understand the disease and also to develop medical treatments.

Tang, Ming and Song first met in graduate school 20 years ago and got in contact in January because Tang, a virologist, had access to the virus and Ming and Song, neurologists, had cortical stem cells that scientists needed to test.

The group worked at a breakneck pace with researchers from Ming and Song's lab, traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Tang's lab in Tallahassee where they had infected the cells with the virus.

In early March, the group was the first team to show that Zika indeed caused cellular phenotypes consistent with microcephaly, a severe birth defect where babies are born with a much smaller head and brain than normal.

They immediately delved into follow-up work and teamed with NIH's Zheng, an expert on drug compounds, to find potential treatments for the disease.

Researchers screened 6,000 compounds that were either already approved by the FDA or were in the process of a clinical trial because they could be made more quickly available to people infected by Zika.

"It takes years if not decades to develop a new drug," Song said. "In this sort of global health emergency, we don't have time. So instead of using new drugs, we chose to screen existing drugs. In this way, we hope to create a therapy much more quickly."


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