Team Makes Zika Drug Breakthrough

Tapeworm treatment shows potential

A team of researchers at Florida State University, Johns Hopkins University, and the National Institutes of Health has identified two groups of compounds that could potentially be used to treat Zika virus infection (ZVI)—one that stops the virus from replicating and the other that stops the virus from killing neuroprogenitor cells in the fetal brain.

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 Florida State professor Dr. Hengli Tang. “This is a first step toward a therapeutic that can stop transmission of this disease.”

The new research is described in an article published in Nature Medicine.

One of the identified compounds is the basis for niclosamide, a drug that is commonly used to treat tapeworm. Theoretically, this compound could be prescribed by physicians today, although tests are still needed to determine a specific treatment regimen for ZVI, according to the investigators.

The other compound is emricasan, a pan-caspase inhibitor that blocked Zika-induced increases in caspase-3 activity and protected human cortical neuroprogenitor cells.

Although the Zika virus was discovered in Africa in 1947, little was known about how it worked and its potential health implications—especially in pregnant women—until a major outbreak occurred in South America last year. In the United States, 584 pregnant women have contracted ZVI, although most of the cases are travel related. As of August 26, 42 locally acquired cases have been reported in Florida.

The virus, among other diseases, can cause microcephaly in fetuses, leading them to be born with severe birth defects.

The researchers screened approximately 6,000 compounds that were already approved by the FDA or that were being analyzed in clinical trials.

“It takes years if not decades to develop a new drug,” said co-investigator Dr. Hongjun Song, a professor at Johns Hopkins. “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.”

The researchers hope to begin testing the compounds in animals with ZVI in the near future.

Sources: Florida State University; August 29, 2016; and Nature Medicine; August 29, 2016.