MIAMI » For months, as the Zika virus has spread from Latin America and the Caribbean to South Florida, public health officials have crafted warnings to include the fact that there is no medical treatment for the infectious disease, which is linked to severe birth defects in newborns.
On Monday, however, a team of researchers from Florida State University, Johns Hopkins University and the National Institutes of Health published research showing that existing drugs — including an FDA-approved drug used to treat tapeworm — can potentially stop Zika from replicating in the body and damaging fetal brains.
The team’s research, published in the journal Nature Medicine, may be the first to identify a therapeutic treatment for Zika, which was discovered in 1947 but remained little known until an outbreak raced across Brazil and the rest of South America in 2015.
Nicolsamide, a chewable tablet used to treat tapeworm, was identified as having one compound that could be helpful in reducing the effects of Zika. The drug showed no danger to pregnant women, according to researchers, though tests are still needed to determine a specific treatment regimen for Zika.
FSU professor of biological science Hengli Tang, who helped lead the research, said the team focused its work on drug compounds that have the shortest path to clinical use.
“This is a first step toward a therapeutic that can stop transmission of this disease,” Tang said in a written statement.
Tang and colleagues at Johns Hopkins and the NIH teamed up for the research and screened 6,000 drug compounds that were either already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or were in the process of a clinical trial. Researchers traveled back and forth between Baltimore and Tang’s lab in Tallahassee testing cells infected with the virus.
The next step is for researchers to test the drugs on animals infected with the Zika virus, which can be transmitted to people through a sexual partner or the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti or Aedes albopictus mosquito.
And while only one in five infected people will feel symptoms, including fever, rash, muscle pain and red eyes lasting a week to 10 days, Zika has been associated with devastating birth defects and neurological disorders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that congenital Zika virus infection during pregnancy can cause microcephaly, a birth defect characterized by an abnormally small head, and other neurological disorders in newborns.
During the current outbreak, at least 1,845 cases of birth defects including microcephaly and other developmental complications associated with Zika have been reported in Brazil, according to the World Health Organization’s most recent update.
In the United States, the CDC has reported 584 confirmed cases of pregnant women contracting Zika through Aug. 18, though most of those are travel related infections.
A total of 42 local Zika infections have been reported in four Florida counties this year, with one each in Broward, Palm Beach and Pinellas, and the remainder in Miami-Dade — where health officials have identified two zones where mosquitoes are actively transmitting the disease: a 1-square-mile section of Wynwood, and a 1.5-square-mile zone in Miami Beach.
As of Aug. 26, there were 545 travel-related Zika cases in Florida, and an additional 75 among pregnant women.
©2016 Miami Herald