How does Zika cause microcephaly or does it even directly cause microcephaly. Has the latter been concretely proven? There are even more questions.
A cool new Cell Stem Cell paper gives us some key insights. The manuscript from a team led by Guo-Li Ming, reports that Zika virus can infect human cortical stem/progenitor cells. Immature neurons were also able to be infected.
Strikingly, the infection impacts the neural precursor cells in part by reducing their ability to grow and is also associated with cell death (see Figure 2a from the paper above). Update: Note that an unreviewed preprint with similar findings was posted recently on PeerJ, which is interesting to read (HT @).
The team used IPSC technology for these studies, which is yet another example of how reprogramming provides a powerful basis for disease modeling.
This is all very preliminary since it is just one paper, but it sure seems like the basis for an attractive hypothesis as to how Zika could lead to microcephaly and potentially other neural disorders.
An important limitation that the authors discuss is that the paper used just one Zika strain that may not be so prevalent in the current outbreak. The data here and the system in place, should allow for a rapid assessment of other strains as well. This could be a very important, groundbreaking paper. It’s on my reading list for the weekend as I’d like to read it in depth.