Steven Bradfute, PhD Steven Bradfute, PhD
Credit: John Arnold

UNM researchers work to better understand Zika virus

Basic research underway at the UNM School of Medicine

Zika, Ebola, Dengue, Marburg – these viruses have made headlines for their sudden, dramatic arrival on the public health scene and their often serious consequences. But fighting them begins with the same basic research questions, according to UNM immunologist Steven B. Bradfute, PhD, a research assistant professor at the Center for Global Health and Department of Internal Medicine at the UNM Health Sciences Center.

“I like the process of discovery and it is important to work with viruses we don’t know a lot of about,” Bradfute said of his interest in basic immunology and vaccine development of emerging infections. 

Bradfute received his PhD in immunology from Baylor College of Medicine before doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases where he studied immune responses to hemorrhagic fever viruses, including the deadly Ebola and Marburg viruses.

“With Ebola, you had to really focus when studying it because it was so deadly. I believe it is very important to build a solid foundation of knowledge on these viruses in order to create effective treatments and vaccines,” he said.

Bradfute and his staff recently began looking into the dynamics of the Zika virus, which has been linked to paralysis in adults and birth defects in babies including microcephaly, a condition where a baby is born with a smaller brain. 

First isolated in 1947, the Zika virus spreads mainly through the bite of infected mosquitoes. Historically, it was not thought to be particularly dangerous.  Prior to 2007, outbreaks were infrequent and small, occurring mostly in Asian and African locales.  Most infected people showed only mild or no symptoms and many never realized they had been infected. That changed in Brazil where more than 1.5 million people have been infected by the virus. The virus has now moved upward into the northern hemisphere.

Basic research can help clinicians at the forefront of such outbreaks, said Bradfute. 

“We do really basic immunology.  We ask – which cells get infected? Does it affect specific organs?  What does it do then?  How does the virus by-pass the immune symptoms? It is really important to understand these questions,” said Bradfute.

In the best case scenarios, information evolves as it flows between the clinical environment and the basic research lab, he said.

“With Ebola we know that quarantining patients works in stopping spread of the disease.  While we don’t understand very much about Zika, we do know there are number of simple steps people can take to protect themselves from getting infected,” he said. 

The CDC recommends pregnant women not travel to Zika infection hotspots and that women of child– bearing age wait at least eight weeks after returning from a place where a Zika outbreak is ongoing  before becoming pregnant.  Men should use condoms for six months after possible exposure to the virus since it seems able to survive in semen for some time. 

“After that, there are some very simple things people can do that are effective: wear long sleeves, no shorts, use insect repellant.  If there are a lot of mosquitos out during the day, then don’t go outside,” he continued.  

Bradfute is hopeful the first research papers by his team will be forthcoming by the end of the year although he cautioned that the process of discovery is often full of surprises. 

“We’ve learned never to take things for granted.  It is one of the reasons the field and the questions are so important. I believe it can be really harmful to the field if we don’t know the foundation of a disease or don’t have a basic understanding of how a virus works,” said Bradfute.

Categories: Schools & Colleges, School of Medicine

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