A potential cure for the Zika virus has been discovered by Queensland researchers, using compounds sourced from a native Australian plant.
Through a partnership between Australian-based biotech company Health Focus Products Australia (HFPA), researchers from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) have discovered the compound, found in a common Australian plant, halts the virus – preventing it from replicating without causing damage to mammalian host cells.
While the plant itself is relatively common, it is being kept a closely guarded secret – due to the potential for commercialisation. According to lead researcher, Dr Trudi Collet, there are many plants around the world that share similar properties and compounds. These traditional plants have been used by cultures around the world, such as the Chinese and North American Indians, to treat illness in the past.
“The research is in the early stages, but we are aiming to ultimately synthesize the compounds in questions and turn our attention to preclinical testing,” said Collet. “Our plaque assays found that the extract from this fairly common native plant killed 100 percent of the Zika infection in cells.”
The Zika virus attacks stem cells in the brain, causing birth defects or severe disability in babies. Adults, with fully-formed brains, suffer only mild flu-like symptoms and rarely face any complications. The virus is spread by mosquitos as well as human sexual activity – similar to a number of other viruses.
“It’s also exciting because of the implications of this work for other viruses,” Collet said. “Zika, dengue, West Nile, Japanese encephalitis, and yellow fever are all from the same family of viruses – flaviviridae.”
According to HFPA Chairman and founder Dr. Mark Baldock, Zika is becoming a more prevalent virus, even in developed countries, and can remain in human sperm for up to six months. A report issued by the USA’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated a 20-fold increase in the number of birth defects in women infected with Zika.
“This breakthrough brings new hope that we could one day eliminate the virus from people who contract it in the very early stages, and remove that prolonged danger and uncertainty,” Baldock said.
HFPA and the Commonwealth Government Innovation Connections scheme provided more than $1 million in funding to QUT’s Indigenous Medicines Group to carry out this collaborative research in late 2015. The project also investigates the use of Australian plants in healing wounds, fighting infections, and treating diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Zika was tackled first, Collet said, because it is becoming an “enormous” healthcare problem in many developing regions worldwide – indicated by recent outbreaks of the virus in the Pacific and the Americas. In August 2016, Puerto Rico reported more than 8,000 cases over a four-week period. While the epidemic is now over, pregnant women are still advised to avoid traveling there.
Over the next three to six months, QUT researchers will continue working on synthesizing the compounds before testing the formula on other viruses.