Link between Zika virus and blindness discovered at Wayne State

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DETROIT — Researchers at a Detroit institution were the first to find that the Zika virus can damage eyes and lead to blindness.

The Kresge Eye Institute at the Wayne State University School of Medicine discovered the Zika virus can replicate in the eye’s retinal cells and cause severe tissue damage, according to a news release from the school.

Ashok Kumar, Ph.D., led a team of researchers who investigated how and why the virus causes abnormalities in the eye. The study was later published in JCI Insight, a journal dedicated to biomedical research.

“We studied the interaction of ZIKV (the Zika virus) with retinal cells. We observed that ZIKV can replicate and survive in retinal cells and ultimately kill them. Next, we tested whether ZIKV can cause retinal damage using an animal model,” Kumar said.

“To our surprise, we discovered that ZIKV infection of a mouse eye resulted in retinal lesions referred to as ‘chorioretinal atrophy.’ Interestingly, the ZIKV-infected mouse eyes showed some features of ZIKV-infected human eye,” Kumar continued. “We believe we have a unique model to study molecular mechanisms of ocular ZIKV infection, and perhaps to test drugs or new anti-viral molecules to treat this blinding eye disease.”

The retina contains a layer of cells at the back of the eye that trigger signals to the brain to visualize images, according to a news release. Research reports the virus mainly affects the retina.

“Indeed, animal and human studies have shown the presence of ZIKV in tears, and there is ongoing research to determine how long, where and at what concentration the virus can survive in the eye,” Kumar said.

Researchers are also looking into how the virus changes a cell, already identifying key targets but are working to validate them.

The study was funded by Research to Prevent Blindness, an organization that funded the Kresge Eye Institute for decades totaling $4.25 million.

The full text of the research can be found here.

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