In 2016 the Zika virus emerged as an urgent global health priority.
As a result, researchers throughout the world were prompted to focus on better understanding this rapidly spreading condition and its devastating side effects, including brain malformations and other birth defects in unborn babies.
Research to date demonstrates that the Zika virus attacks key cells responsible for generating neurons, as the brain grows during embryonic development. Previous studies had suggested that Zika enters these cells, called neural progenitor cells or NPCs, by attaching to a protein named AXL on the cell’s surface. This early research showed that blocking the expression of the AXL receptor protein defends against the virus in several human cancer cell lines. Since the protein is highly expressed on the surface of NPCs, many researchers have speculated that AXL is the entry point for Zika in the developing brain.
Now scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) are utilizing state-of-the-art technologies including induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and genome editing to more closely examine NPCs, have found AXL is not the only entrance point for Zika during infection.