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Infectious disease

A pregnancy supplement stems Zika microcephaly in mice

Research suggests a new way that Zika infection in mice promotes microcephaly

by Megha Satyanarayana
October 26, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 42


Structure of docosahexaenoic acid.

A team of scientists has described a new way that infection with Zika virus can cause brain defects in mice. Giving newborn mice the essential fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) seems to slow some of the damage (Sci. Adv. 2019. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax7142). A recent outbreak in South and Central America highlighted one result of infection in newborns: microcephaly, or small head size due to stunted brain growth. Using mice, the team found that Zika protein E interacts with Mfsd2a, a transport protein in endothelial cells, hastening the protein’s destruction. Mfsd2a helps shuttle dietary DHA into brain endothelial cells, and mutations that inactivate the protein alone lead to microcephaly. DHA is an essential fatty acid, and cells missing Mfsd2a were unable to take up the molecule. After infecting mice with Zika immediately after birth, the team found that those mice treated with DHA had larger and heavier brains than those that were not. DHA is already recommended to pregnant women as a dietary supplement. Wei Yang, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College researcher who led the work, says that this study suggests that pregnant women in areas prone to Zika infection should consider taking it.


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