Zika Virus was only recently connected with microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes lifelong physical and developmental problems, but the reason for this connection remained unclear. In a new study, scientists have identified two Zika proteins they believe may be responsible for microcephaly. The finding will not only help us to better under the pathology of the disease, but may also be a step forward in preventing Zika-infected mothers from birthing babies with this life-altering disease.

Although zika virus contains 10 proteins, according to a recent study now published in Cell Stem Cell, only NS4A and NS4B play a role in microcephaly. These Zika proteins smack a cellular gatekeeper until it is disoriented and can no longer properly guard brain development and autophagy regulation, the cell’s recycling factories. As a result, brain development is stunted by up to 65 percent.

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Only a small number of children of Zika-infected mothers go on to develop microcephaly. Photo Courtesy of Reuters/ Nacho Doce

This study marks the first time that researchers have examined three strains of Zika in the second trimester of fetal brain stem cells, and the findings could usher in new research on effective ways to prevent the disease from developing in children of Zika-infected women.

Microcephaly is a birth defect where a baby’s head is significantly smaller than average. Although Zika virus is not the only way that a child can develop the condition, the recent Zika outbreak in South America and the Caribbean has increased the incidence of this condition in Zika-infected areas.

“We now know the molecular pathway, so we made the first big step toward target therapy for Zika-induced microcephaly,”  Jae Jung, senior corresponding author said in a recent statement.  “Years from now, one shot or a series of shots could target the proteins NS4A and NS4B or their collaborators.”

Curing microcephaly is only one part of the problem. Only a small number of children of Zika-infected mothers go on to develop microcephaly, and scientists are also looking for effective biomarkers to help indicate which pregnant women may be at most risk.

Read More: 

Baby Born With Zika-Related Microcephaly In NYC: Everything You Need To Know

Zika Virus May Cause Joint Deformities, As Well As Microcephaly, In Newborns

Source: Liang Q, Luo Z, Zeng J, et al. Zika Virus NS4A and NS4B Proteins Deregulate Akt-mTOR Signaling in Human Fetal Neural Stem Cells to Inhibit Neurogenesis and Induce Autophagy. Cell Stem Cell. 2016