How Zika Virus Spreads through Sex02 December 2016
A worrisome mode of Zika virus (ZIKV) transmission is through unprotected sexual intercourse. COBRE Investigator, Saguna Verma, Ph.D., an associate professor of tropical medicine with the John A. Burns School of Medicine, has received the first ZIKV-response NIH funding in Hawaii to investigate how ZIKV infection in men makes them susceptible to transmit the virus to their sexual partners, even though they may appear symptom-free.
“Clinical data show that infectious ZIKV can be sexually transmitted by men long after the virus is cleared from their blood,” said Verma. She believes ZIKV persists within specific cells unique to the testes, silently prolonging the infection.
Verma and her partners will work with human cells that form the blood-testes barrier. Normally, the blood-testes barrier protects the delicate germ cells from infection and resulting “immune attack” by the immune cells from the blood. They intend to demonstrate the extraordinary way by which the virus penetrates this barrier.
“We believe the ZIKV infects cells of the blood-testes barrier and induces inflammation. This response may trigger the disruption of the blood-testes barrier and allow the virus to eventually enter the inner compartment of the testes and establish persistent infection in the germ cells,” said Verma. “We have standardized an in vitro blood-testes barrier model that will be used as an innovative tool to address this question.”
Ultimately if the mechanism by which ZIKV enters and remains persistent in the testes for several months is discovered, Verma wants to unlock a way for antiviral drugs to be used to clear ZIKV from the testes and prevent sexual transmission.