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USciences Lab Researching Zika Virus to Determine How the Mosquito-Borne Illness Causes Birth Defects

By Brian Kirschner

Taking lessons learned from years of research into HIV, Zachary Klase PhD, assistant professor of biological sciences, has begun studying Zika Virus in his lab at University of the Sciences in hopes of uncovering more information about the mosquito-borne virus which has caused concern recently.

“This is one of those viruses that has been around a long time, but not much research was done until the outbreak began,” said Dr. Klase.

Zika’s largest impact has been in infants born to women who were infected during pregnancy. The virus has been linked to a birth defect called microcephaly, where a baby’s head is smaller than expected. Experts also believe that Guillan-Barre Syndrome, a rare disorder that causes the immune system to attack the nerves causing paralysis, is also associated with the virus.

lab trays

Dr. Klase, whose research has primarily focused on HIV, said he is taking many lessons from his work studying the impact of that virus on micro RNA, which plays a major role in gene expression and is key in development and cell cycles.

“We are asking the same questions that we have been asking about HIV for Zika,” said Dr. Klase.

Dr. Klase studied the existing research into the virus before embarking on his own experiment and believes that there may be similarities to the way Zika infects cells to other known illnesses such as HIV, Dengue Fever, chikungunya and West Nile Virus.

Dr. Klase is conducting the research with graduate student Lucas Beckman MS’17, and anticipates getting additional assistance from undergraduates once the fall semester begins. Beckman said the research fills in the blanks for the many questions that scientists have about how Zika virus operates and infects, particularly brain cells.

“The micro RNA help us set up a profile of how the virus behaves in the cell,” said Beckman. “The first step in any vaccine development is in understanding how the virus operates.”

student in lab

Beckman is testing up to 380 micro RNAs at and evaluating their impacts to compare to other viruses and research like Dr. Klase’s studies of HIV.

Dr. Klase said they will look at the different impact that the virus has on different types of cells including those from the brain and neural precursors and try to mimic those infections in the lab.

The USciences lab obtained a strain of the virus from Puerto Rico and two from Africa. The strains will be studied alongside strains of Dengue Fever, a virus closely related to Zika, to compare the effects. The lab is working in collaboration with Temple University Neuro AIDS center and a Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine student in the research.

“We hope to have our initial examination of the virus in 6 months to a year,” said Dr. Klase.

Join the conversation about Zika Virus:

University of the Sciences will host a symposium focused on the Zika virus on Thursday, August 25. The University is partnering with Atheric Pharmaceutical, a Virginia-based company working to repurpose other anti-viral drugs in search for medications to prevent and treat Zika.

Dr. Klase will speak on the mechanisms of the Zika virus at a symposium and will be joined by Dr. Robert Malone, CEO of Atheric Pharmaceutical, who will discuss the options and progress toward rapid development of the medical countermeasures to Zika. The presentations will be followed by a roundtable discussion with faculty.

The event will be held in the Pharmacy/Toxicology Center in room 140 from noon to 1:30 p.m.

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