First direct Zika-microcephaly connection discovered by Chinese scientists

Five-month-old Laura born with microcephaly undergoes a medical test. © Nacho Doce
The first ever direct evidence of a long-suspected link between the Zika virus and the presence of microcephaly in newborns has been uncovered by Chinese scientists. Microcephaly is a condition that results in abnormal brain and skull development.

Suspicions have been held for a while, especially after a rise in cases in Brazil and elsewhere, in which the mother of a newborn infected with microcephaly was often found to have been bitten by a Zika mosquito.

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Now scientists with the Institute of Genetics and Development Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology under the Academy of Military Medical Sciences say they have found a direct connection, CCTV reports.

They did this by studying the effect of the virus on fetal mouse brains, after pulling a sample from a Chinese patient.

Xu Zhizheng of the Academy of Sciences says the virus felt right at home, quickly spreading and infecting neural stem cells. This led to an abnormal proliferation and differentiation of the cells, leading to neural death.

As soon as the mouse embryos were carried to term, all of the symptoms associated with microcephaly manifested themselves as suspected, along with genetic abnormalities.

"We hope the model can be used in drug and vaccine tests, helping with the prevention and treatment of Zika infection," said Qin of the Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology.

The findings were published in the Cell Stem Cell journal.

In late April, the United States reported its first Zika death, with the FDA approving a commercially available test for the disease.

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In Brazil, authorities targeted thousands of households in favelas with Zika-blasting drones. The country feared the disease would scare away tourists and visitors to the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympics.

There remains no officially-accepted vaccine or prevention method against Zika yet – just health precautions. However,world scientists are hard at work: there is a US government program that promised a potential vaccine by the end of 2016; Brazil has one as well; and Russia is currently working on identifying the first proper Zika markers for preventive purposes. Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova told RT in February the first samples of a potentially very effective vaccine have already been developed.

Overall there are 18 agencies and companies around the world that are developing Zika vaccines.