Courtesy of UCR Today

UCR’s Assistant Professor of Biochemistry Jikui Song and Assistant Professor of Plant Pathology and Microbiology Rong Hai published their findings on the crystal structure of the Zika virus in the Nature Communications scientific journal on March 27, 2017.

The Zika virus is a member of the flavivirus family, a group of viruses that are transmitted through bites from ticks or mosquitoes or any other transmitter of viruses similar to the Dengue fever. The virus currently affects around 60 countries and can be transmitted through bites from infected mosquitos, birth if the mother is carrying the virus, sexual intercourse as well as through other sources.  

The researchers discovered the structure of the virus through the non-structural 5 (NS5) protein that helps to make up Zika. With the discovery of the crystal structure in the NS5 protein, the researchers are now better able to understand how Zika replicates itself. It was also through this protein that the researchers were able to replicate the virus in order to study it as the protein aids the virus in surviving in artificial conditions, such as in laboratories.

During the team’s research, a major issue that arose was how the protein was unstable, causing the protein to deteriorate during the purification process. In order to counteract this, the researchers reduced the time that the NS5 protein was purified. Because of this, the researchers were ultimately able to achieve more thorough and detailed results.

With the discoveries made in their recent research on Zika, Song and Hai are looking to study potential antivirals that have proven to be effective in combatting other flaviviruses, such as Dengue.

One of the main authors of the experiment, graduate student in chemistry Boxiao Wang, further explained the process of creating an antiviral for the Zika virus. “We already know what the protein looks like. So, basically, we can use this structure to develop or design a similar molecule which can then bind with the protein … This similar molecule can inhibit the activity of this protein.”

Wang also stressed that the antiviral process is still far from being completed, though. “We have to develop it and we have to determine if it works. Finally … you develop a small inhibitor that works, there is another thing and that is if it can be used for human needs. What if it is toxic? You can kill the virus but you can also kill the human.”

Other researchers on the project included UCR graduate students Boxiao Wang, Xiao-Feng Tan, Stephanie Thurmond, Zhi-Min Zhang and Asher Lin. In order to embark on this project, the researchers have received grants from Song from the March of Dimes Foundation, the Sidney Kimmel Foundation for Cancer Research and the National Institutes of Health.

A fourth-year biology student, who requested to be kept anonymous, stated that she finds this research to be “pretty important because they are eventually going to find something to cure. So I think that it is pretty cool and pretty interesting.”