Fire With Fire, Virus With Virus

Mosquitos are responsible for some of the nastiest diseases on the planet: malaria, West Nile Virus, chikungunya and more. 

Most recently, the Zika virus is the mosquito-transmitted disease that has been grabbing headlines. Ever since Zika arrived in the Western Hemisphere, doctors have been searching for a vaccine or a treatment to prevent the devastating birth defects the virus causes. So far, nothing.

Now new research from the UNC Schools of Medicine and Public Health, however, has shown that the attack of another virus, Dengue, might provide protection from Zika.

UNC medicine professor Aravinda de Silva and epidemiologist Ralph Baric found that antibodies to the Dengue virus—antibodies the body creates after a Dengue infection to fight off future infections—also have some limited ability to fight the Zika virus. They published their results in the journal mBio.

Dengue and Zika both come from a family of viruses called flaviviruses, otherwise known as viral hemorrhagic fevers, along with West Nile, yellow fever and half a dozen other mosquito and tick-borne illnesses

Flaviviruses, like many viruses have an outer protein shell called a capsid and those capsids have small molecules sticking off of them to recognize and attach to the cells they want to infect. The more closely related two viruses are, the more alike their capsids and molecules sticking off them are likely to be.

A family resemblance may not seem that important—what does it matter what the virus looks like if it causes deadly fever or birth defects? That resemblance is extremely important, however, to the immune system. 

The immune system has two major arms: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The innate immune system is a blunt instrument, devouring or poisoning anything it recognizes as foreign. This system is fast, but not incredibly nuanced.

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